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. This is 1997 and the Asian Financial Crisis is beginning to be felt in the region…
The Guardian, Thursday 1 May 2014
Ilo Ilo is filled with sweetness, humour and humanity: so assured and accomplished that it’s hard to believe this is a first feature. What an impressive debut from 30-year-old Singaporean writer-director Anthony Chen, who graduated four years ago from Britain’s National Film and Television School. In its gentleness, its shrewd psychological insight and unforced accumulation of detail, his film is something to be compared with the work of Taiwanese director Edward Yang.
The story is a domestic drama, with an addictive hint of soap, avowedly autobiographical and based on the director’s own childhood experiences of being cared for (along with two siblings) by a maidservant from the Philippines: the title is a Mandarin phrase meaning “mum and dad not at home”. Interestingly, the little boy at the movie’s centre is an unspeakably obnoxious brat: imperious, manipulative, slightly obsessive-compulsive. Perhaps all film directors have a little of these qualities somewhere in their pasts.
Nine-year-old Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) is the son of two stressed working parents in late-1990s Singapore when the economy was tanking and people feared for their jobs. Tian Wen Chen plays the father, Teck, a truly terrible salesman whose attempts to demonstrate his supposedly “unbreakable” glass lead to disaster. Yann Yann Yeo is Jiale’s mum, Hwee Leng, short-tempered and distracted. Jiale’s beloved grandpa, who had been notionally minding Jiale after school, has died, and now his parents have decided to hire a live-in maid for childcare and general domestic duties. This new development, along with the fact that Hwee is pregnant, makes Jiale even more insecure; Chen shows how the boy senses and absorbs his parents’ own anxiety and feeds it back to them in the form of terrible behaviour.
It is in this fraught family nest that the new maid must make herself at home as best she can. This is Teresa, or Terry, tremendously played by Angeli Bayani. She receives in submissive silence the news that she is to be hardly more than a serf: the new mistress demands Terry’s passport from her as soon as she walks in and fails to reprove her son in any meaningful way for the appalling way he talks to Terry.
This group rests on a cat’s-cradle of secrets and lies and cover-ups. Every one of these four people is lying about money. Teck goes through the motions of leaving for work every day, desperate to conceal the truth about his actual employment situation and his stock-market gambles with the family savings. Hwee Leng is privately fascinated with a certain dodgy entrepreneur and his self-improvement seminars. Terry is secretly doing weekend work for cash as a hairdresser, and Jiale is neglecting his schoolwork while he develops a system for predicting the national lottery winning numbers – a system which the school principal finds worryingly plausible. Meanwhile, when Jiale gets into trouble, Terry instinctively covers up for him and enables his behaviour patterns, sensing that denouncing the boy to his mother can only result in being fired.
Yet the miracle that Chen conjures from this poisonously dysfunctional setup is that Jiale and Terry begin to bond, probably beginning with a shocking incident that follows an accident with the balcony washing line. It is partly a Stockholm-syndrome symptom but also a genuine friendship, something that replaces an actual mother-child relationship. Yet the relationship that it replaces is not that of Jiale and Hwee Leng, but Jiale and her own baby, left behind in the Philippines. Terry has been allowed to wear Hwee’s old cast-off clothes and poignantly begins to dress and behave like Jiale’s real mother.
What gives this situation its force is that the division between rich and poor is not as clear as it appeared at the beginning. In the globalised labour market, Singapore’s professional classes are well able to employ those from the Philippines and devolve to them the duties of caring for and perhaps even caring about their children. But Chen shows how there is arrogance and hubris here. When the economy contracts, their haughty attitude is brutally exposed. Could it be that Chen intends Jiale, that pampered prince, to be a satirical embodiment of Singapore itself: cosseted, spoilt and entitled? Certainly those of us who have heard apocryphal tales and scare stories about Singapore’s tough law-enforcement and its corporal punishment will find a certain scene very difficult to watch.
Ilo Ilo is a story told with enormous sympathy and flair, and an almost novelistic skill in getting inside the principals’ heads. Chen is a real film-maker to watch.
APRIL 3, 2014
“Ilo Ilo,” Anthony Chen’s small, wonderful firstfeature film, is an acutely perceptive examination of middle-class life in Singapore during a 1997 financial crisis that sent tremors of panic through Asia’s developing countries. Its semi-autobiographical story focuses on a family of three, with a baby on the way, suddenly facing uncertainty.
The mild-mannered Teck (Chen Tianwen), who works in sales, and his pregnant wife, Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann), a secretary, toil long, stressful hours in their drive toward upward mobility. A thorn in their side is their neglected 10-year-old son, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), a troublemaker at his elementary school, where officials — driven to their wits’ end by his behavior — summon Hwee Leng from her workplace when he misbehaves. When Jiale punches another boy, he is threatened with expulsion.
Teck is a passive-aggressive, grown-up version of his son. He defies Hwee Leng by smoking cigarettes in the hallway outside their apartment. At a family birthday party, where she allows him one drink, he gets drunk and is found collapsed in a bathroom. A minor crisis erupts when a cigarette that Jiale tried smoking is found in a toilet, and Teck is scolded.
The bad economic news breaks just as Hwee Leng hires Teresa (Angeli Bayani), a 28-year-old Filipino with a child back in the Philippines, as a housekeeper. One of her duties is to watch over Jiale, who refuses to obey her. In one incident, the boy flees on his bike and breaks his arm when he is struck by a car.
Hwee Leng, the hardest character to like, is suspicious and demanding; she talks down to Teresa, issues curt orders and never expresses even a hint of gratitude. She may behave monstrously, but you come to understand why and to grudgingly admire her tenacity. You also notice that her bark is much worse than her bite, and that behind her severity is a reservoir of love.
“Ilo Ilo” increasingly focuses on the relationship of Jiale and Teresa, who is as financially insecure as her employers and supplements what she makes as a housekeeper with a hairdressing sideline. Teresa is so servile that she never loses her temper with either Hwee Leng or Jiale, no matter how provoked. As a bond slowly develops between Teresa and the boy, he begins to express his affection in small, subtle ways, and Hwee Leng becomes resentful. “Ilo Ilo” could have sentimentalized this relationship, but it doesn’t. And by the end of a movie that could have been a tear-jerker, you empathize with everybody equally.
The economic woes that weighed heavily 17 years ago in Singapore aren’t all that different from American workplace anxiety during and after the 2007-8 financial crisis. Fueling the family members’ tension is the unvoiced fear that just one slip on the ladder could cost them everything. They are a mirror of society, clutching at a dream that may suddenly be out of reach.
This remarkably terse movie doesn’t waste a word or an image. It refuses to linger over each little crisis its characters endure. And its detachment lends a perspective that widens the film’s vision of people reacting to events beyond their control. This family and Singapore belong to a complex, tightly knit social organism in which, consciously or not, every part is sensitive to every other.