Director: Anthony Chen
Cast: Yeo Yann Yann, Chen Tian Wen, Angeli Bayani, Koh Jia Ler, Peter Wee, Jo Kukathas, Naomi Toh, Delwin Neo
RunTime: 1 hr 40 mins
Rating: PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Official Website: http://www.iloilomovie.com/
Opening Day: 29 August 2013
Synopsis: Set in Singapore, ILO ILO chronicles the relationship between the Lim family and their newly arrived maid, Teresa. Like many other Filipino women, she has come to this city in search of a better life. Her presence in the family worsens their already strained relationship. Jiale, the young and troublesome son, starts to form a unique bond with Teresa, who soon becomes an unspoken part of the family. But this is 1997 and the Asian Financial Crisis is beginning to be felt in the region…
To put things into perspective, the Camera d’Or is only the second highest honour at the annual Cannes Film Festival, awarded to the best first feature film in recognition of promising new filmmakers. Last year, that award went to Benh Zeitlin’s ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’, which eventually came to be nominated four times at this year’s Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. The affirmation has this year been bestowed on Singapore’s very own Anthony Chen, whose debut feature-length film ‘Ilo Ilo’ may very well score the country’s first nomination in the extremely competitive Foreign Language Film category.
You might certainly be right in thinking that we may be getting ahead of ourselves if we haven’t yet seen the movie, but it is after having enjoyed every rapt minute of it that we are saying with great confidence we have not overstated the potential of this little delicate gem nor the creative force behind it, Chen. Indeed, never will you guess from watching the movie that this is only his first full-length movie, because in ‘Ilo Ilo’, Chen navigates plot, character and relationship with the deftness of a pro honed from years of experience, crafting an intimate yet broad, bittersweet yet heart-warming portrait of a working-class family caught in the throes of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
Working off his own screenplay (that is apparently a semi but not auto-biographical account of his childhood years), Chen displays an acute sense of self-awareness and confidence in his own scripting and directing abilities. Whereas lesser directors would have relied on mawkish sentimentality, Chen banks on good old-fashioned character-driven storytelling to draw in his audience. Each scene is carefully written and constructed to establish the relationship between four richly realised characters, with meticulous attention paid to their evolving dynamics as the film progresses.
Yes, ever so gently and effortlessly, Chen hooks you in to empathise with the plight of the Lim family and their Filipino maid from the titular province, which - thanks to the universality of the familial themes - transcends age, generation and even cultures. Certainly, Mr and Mrs Lim (veteran TV actor Chen Tianwen and Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann) wouldn’t be the first to grapple with an increasingly misbehaved young kid (newcomer Koh Jia Ler), nor - at least in the Singapore context - to hire a maid to take care of their child because both have to work to support the family.
Enter the timid Filipino domestic worker Terry (Angeli Bayani), whom Jiale treats with utter contempt at the start. From purposely sabotaging her at the bookshop to slipping away from the side gate while she waits anxiously to pick him up from school after dismissal, Terry’s new job taking care of the wilful Jiale proves to be a baptism of fire, especially as she frets over her infant son whom she had left in the care of her sister back home. While setting up the central relationship between Terry and Jiale, Chen occasionally interweaves the largely parallel circumstances of the remaining two characters - while Mrs Lim gets no joy at work watching her fellow employees get the axe and feeling partly responsible for being the one typing out their termination letters, Mr Lim is in an even worse position, having lost his job and forced to accept a temporary position as a security guard at a warehouse.
What is truly impressive is how Chen develops the story through evolving the dynamics between and among the various characters. A freak accident turns out to be Jiale’s wake-up call, marking a turning point in how he treats Terry - a particularly poignant scene sees him offering her his bowl of shark’s fin soup at a family banquet after he hears the adults saying how much of an expensive delicacy it is. But it also causes Mrs Lim to be quietly resentful of Terry, exacerbated by the small incidents like Jiale’s preference for “Auntie Terry’s” fish porridge over hers. Her jealousy not only makes her more wary of Terry - whom she suspects of smoking and even taking her money - but also aggravates her peckish behaviour over her husband.
Chen’s grasp of detail is masterful, every little event ratcheting the tension between mother and maid as well as husband and wife before building to an inevitable conclusion handled with bittersweet restraint. Ditto for his control over the film’s tone, which he carefully calibrates to keep things realistic from start to finish, lacing the drama with an undertone of real-life humour but balancing the elements deftly to avoid being either heavy-handed or facetious. And for those who have been following his short films, this is undoubtedly his paciest film to date, avoiding the long takes and arty pretences to focus on the story and characters.
That he chooses to do so is also testament to the exceptional performances of his cast. In his first big-screen role, Tianwen demonstrates a leading-man quality not quite apparent from his history of TV dramas - and with nuance and subtlety, he earns the audience’s empathy as the hen-pecked husband afraid to tell his wife the truth about his unemployment for fear of losing her respect. Yann Yann is just as solid as his complement, utterly convincing with Tianwen as a couple whose marriage is now defined by the everyday practical concerns of money and children.
Deserving of special and joint mention are Bayani and Jia Ler, who share great chemistry with each other whether as antagonists at the beginning or as each other’s guardians later on. It’s no secret why Chen had selected Jia Ler out of more than a thousand hopefuls for the role - the now 13-year-old is a fascinating natural in front of the camera, holding his own amongst the seasoned vets as the feisty kid with an unexpectedly sweet centre. Of course, the credit also belongs to Chen, who reportedly spent take after take coaxing the best out of Jia Ler.
But all that effort has clearly paid off - not only is the acting some of the best we have ever seen in local film, the scripting and directing is among the most accomplished as well. This isn’t the sort of mass-appeal movie that Jack Neo makes, nor is it the arty-farty type that speaks only to an acquired taste; rather, Chen has made a perfectly accessible drama that captures an immediately identifiable slice of Singapore life, absolutely fascinating in its authenticity, poignancy and honest-to-god warmth.
(With authenticity, poignancy, warmth and sincerity, Anthony Chen's unprecedented Camera d'Or winning drama is a true-blue gem of Singapore cinema)
Review by Gabriel Chong