Ilo Ilo


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

"Ilo Ilo is a quietly assured first feature that marks the director out as a bright new talent."

Winning the best debut award at the 2013 London Film Festival and the Camera d’Or for best debut feature at Cannes, Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo is a quietly assured first feature that marks the director out as a bright new talent.

Chen is a director with an international background, having been born and educated in Singapore but going on to complete his Masters in Film Directing at the National Film and Television School in the UK. A product of the modern SE Asian diaspora, who now works between his native country and London, Chen takes a similar international focus with the plot of Ilo Ilo, which is centred on how the arrival of a domestic worker from the Philippines exposes hidden tensions within a lower middle class Singaporean family circa 1997.

Copy picture

The 1997 setting is important in that it was a period of financial downturn for Singaporeans. Every day, HR worker Hwee Leng sees more and more employees trudge into her office to receive their termination notices. On top of this tension, she must deal with the fact that she is heavily pregnant, her pre-teen son Jiale is uncontrollable, and her husband Teck is demoralised in his mundane office job and longs to quit to start a new business of his own. In the opening scenes, Chen paints a portrait of modern fast-track free-market capitalist Singapore that is all too depressingly familiar for today’s austerity-addled western viewers: a country where families are just one paycheck away from losing the trappings of the middle class as recession bites.

The arrival of the quiet and conscientious Filipino immigrant worker Teresa at the household, exposes just how fragile the eggshell like middle class image of Hwee Leng and Teck is. Teresa’s presence also highlights how financial difficulty is a relative concept, as despite always watching every penny, Hwee Leng still wants her own live-in maid to do the chores and to take care of their errant young son. Appearances, it seems, must be maintained.

The Filipinos themselves have long been labelled as the itinerant domestic workforce of the world, and Chen’s film functions effectively as a sympathetic and intriguing, though never heavy handed, portrayal of life as a modern second class citizen. As their employee, Teresa is expected to live with the family, sharing a bedroom with Jiale. Days off will be few. She is banned from taking another job to help earn extra pay, which she needs to send back to her own son in the Philippines. Presumably thinking she is being helpful, one of Hwee Leng’s first gestures to Teresa is to offer her a bag of clothes that were to be thrown out. Jiale, unwilling to accept a new nurse, promptly runs out on Teresa during her first week and gets himself hit by a car.

Aside from just dwelling on the harshness of the expat domestic worker’s lot however, Chen subtly spins us a tale of how Teresa slowly begins to shift the status quo in the family. There is a sad irony at the heart of this unbalanced relationship. Though she will never be on an equal footing with the family, Teresa becomes gradually more emotionally involved with them in a way that surprises both parties. Apart from the fact that she is a fundamentally a necessary domestic component in Hwee Leng and Teck’s lives to allow them to work long hours, Teresa’s refusal to be bullied by Jiale and the fact that she shares the young boy’s mischevious sense of humour means that before long she has won his affection. Even Teck seems to like the new maid, confiding little secrets in her, like how the stress of his home life and the family’s dwindling bank account has driven him to smoke surreptitiously out in the apartment block’s landing, risking the wrath of his wife.

Hwee Leng is less agreeable as senses the power shift, her growing resentment exposes her own doubts about her abilities as a mother and wife that have festering beneath her domineering outer surface. In one significant scene later in the film, Jiale is threatened with expulsion, but it is Teresa who rushes to the headmistress’s office ahead of the rest of the family, Hwee Leng walking in just as Teresa clasps the hand of the headmistress as she pleads for clemency. Similarly, at a family meal in a restaurant to celebrate Hwee Leng’s mother’s birthday, Teresa is casually directed towards a separate table to eat alone, but Jiale soon wanders over to sit with her, leaving Hwee Leng to watch in silent helplessness. Such quietly stated moments illuminate how Teresa has gradually upended this family, against her own expectations. This was supposed to just be a poorly paid job to help her get by.

Though Chen never offers audiences a magical solution to the family’s increasingly dire financial situation (which puts Teresa’s job at risk), he lightens what might have been an unsparingly bleak film with moments of genuine humour and warmth, whether it is Teck sharing a smoke with Teresa on the balcony, or Jiale and Teresa tussling and play fighting. He also gets strong, nuanced performances throughout from all the main cast members. In crafting such an unsentimental yet emotionally involving film that balances humour with the emotional punches, Chen’s debut reminded this critic of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s family-centred dramas. That is a comparison to be proud of.

Reviewed on: 21 Oct 2013
Share this with others on...
A family struggles to deal with the impact of the financial crisis.
Amazon link

Director: Anthony Chen

Starring: Yeo Yann Yann, Chen Tianwen, Angeli Bayani, Koh Jia Ler

Year: 2013

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: Singapore

Search database:

If you like this, try:

Au Pair
I Wish
The Queen Of Versailles