Last year was a significant one for the 29-year-old Director Anthony Chen. His first feature film, Ilo Ilo, became the only Singaporean film to win the Camera d’Or (an award for new Directors) Award at the Cannes Film Festival, although it did not make the cut for the Academy Awards.
His characters are so finely tuned, the setting so authentic and the dialogue so natural that it comes as no surprise that Chen’s portrait of a Singaporean middle-class family on the eve of the financial crash of 1997 is autobiographical. If the story is predictable and hardly momentous, it provides a clear backdrop for Chen’s observations on class and race in Singapore’s melting-pot society.
Ilo Ilo is essentially the story of Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), a difficult, spoilt young Singaporean school boy and his relationship with the family’s new Filipino maid, Teresa (Angeli Bayani). Teresa has been hired to help out Jiale’s pregnant mother, Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) who is hanging onto her job while administering the redundancies at her company. But Hwee’s work is interrupted each time her son is called to the principal’s office and she fears for her own job.
When Teresa arrives to clean, cook, and care for Jiale, we are taken aback when she is assigned a pull-out bed adjoined to Jiale’s in his bedroom. If Teresa is uncomfortable with the set-up, Jiale is furious, and does his best to make Teresa’s life miserable. When he breaks his arm fleeing from her, he is happy to have his parents blame Teresa. But Chen’s characters are full of surprises and the parents seem to know better.
As Jiale gets to know Teresa –for example, learning that she has left a young baby behind in the province of Ilo Ilo – something akin to respect develops in his attitude towards her. While Teresa’s maternal instincts and fun loving, firm, but patient nature win over Jiale, his mother becomes jealous and puts Teresa in her place on more than one occasion. Jiale proves more sensitive than anyone would give him credit for, and when Teresa is reprimanded or excluded from a family gathering as though she were a beggar at a banquet, he alone feels sympathy for her.
No sooner than Teresa starts to become a member of the family, however, tragedy strikes when Jiale’s father, Teck (Chen Tianwen), a hopeless salesman, loses his job and then loses his savings in the stock market crash of 1997. Teresa has come to Singapore for a better life and to support her son, but no country and no family is immune to misfortune anymore than they are to separation and loss.
Chen’s achievement is that he manages to hold our attention with no plot or action to speak of and character arcs that are fairly predictable. But if this slice of life film is slight, its characters and insights are not. Moreover, the story is somehow told without the sentimentalism that would ruin a similar American or British film.
Joyce Glasser – MT film reviewer