It is very likely that viewers watching Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen’s remarkable debut film Ilo Ilo might find it hard to believe that this is really the work of a first-time filmmaker. The maturity, confidence, and mastery displayed in the storytelling are so impressive that, by the time you get to the end credits, you are overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and force of its emotional power. I watched it for the second time today and loved it even more. Drawing from his own childhood experiences, Chen has fashioned a heartfelt and understated domestic drama that is set during the Asian financial crisis of 1997.
It centers on a family of three trying to get by in Singapore: The husband (Chen Tianwen) works as a salesman for a glass manufacturing company and he is not doing very well. He is unsatisfied and on the side, hopes to make some extra money from the lottery and the investment he made in the stock market. The wife (Yeo Yann Yann) works for a shipping company, is heavily pregnant and has to witness employees being laid off day by day. And she has to type all their letters. The son, Jiale, is a spoilt little brat who frequently gets into trouble at his school. He has an obsession with his ‘Tamagotchi’ (a small digital toy that was all the rage at the time – even I had one). The parents, fed up with all the phone calls they get from the school, finally decide to hire a maid – a Filipino woman called Theresa aka Terry who has problems of her own.
Terry finds it hard to get along with Jiale at first – the boy’s shenanigans become too much for her at one point and she gives him a piece of her mind – but gradually the two become the best of friends and the boy even starts to treat her better than his own mother treats her. In one particular scene, a birthday celebration is going on and the relatives make Terry sit outside but the boy later slips out and gives her company. Actions like these arouse the jealousy of his mother at times and leads to a few heated confrontations. The neglect of Jiale’s parents on one side is nicely paralleled on the other by Terry’s neglect of her own son – again, she has to make enough to provide for her own family. So, on the suggestion of a neighbor, she takes a part-time job as a hairdresser.
We are not sure of who to blame here for the boy’s behavior. Actually, he is not really a bad kid and his reckless and defiant attitude could be attributed to his parents’ neglect. But can we really blame the parents? These are very tough times and they are constantly worrying about the security and stability of their job. This is not really a depressing film. There are some parts here that resonated with me personally because I’ve been through all this when I was a kid. I was not, however, looked after by a maid. But these other Middle-class problems, you know. Every actor has played their parts beautifully, especially Angeli Bayani who plays Terry. And the actor who plays the father provides the occasional humor. The film made Singapore proud when it won the prestigious Caméra d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. This film is not to be missed. I strongly recommend it.