Ilo Ilo

Starring : Anthony Chen

Director : Anthony Chen

Release Date : 2 Jan 2014

The story of Ilo Ilo couldn’t be simpler. Just before the Asian economic crisis of 1997, a Singaporean family of three decides to hire a Filipino maid to help lessen the burden of doing household chores for pregnant mother Hwee Leng (Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann, who has won numerous awards for her role in the movie).

Hwee Leng’s husband Teck (Chen Tianwen), the “good guy” – as opposed to her “bad guy” when it comes to raising their son Jiale (newcomer Koh Jia Ler) – is your typical average Joe who works as a salesman. Into their simple lives walks in Teresa (Angeli Bayani) to work as their maid.

The movie establishes the Lim family dynamics by showing Jiale’s disciplinary problems at school, and the way Hwee Leng and Teck react differently to it.

Always distracted by his Tamagotchi (remember those?), Jiale’s antics will test the patience of even the kindest of souls. We sense the family’s place in the economic ladder through scenes that show them worrying about everyday things like work and money, and not wanting to look bad in front of other family members.

Keeping to this style of storytelling, we also get a glimpse of Teresa’s story through the things she keeps in her locker and a few throwaway lines of dialogue. It’s the kind of film that always gives us just enough information to make our own conclusions, and nothing more.

Frankly, it’s refreshing to watch a film this simple and unpretentious, yet confident in its own ability to tell a story in the most subtle of manners. Director Anthony Chen is the winner of the Camera d’Or (i.e “best first film”) award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The movie also won four other awards at the Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan (Best Feature Film, Best Screenplay, Best New Director and Best Supporting Actress). Surely, many would expect Ilo Ilo to be a heavy family drama because of all its accolades. But that is just far from the truth.

Ilo Ilo is an engaging watch from start to finish; it nimbly sidesteps every single clichéd hurdle that comes its way. The film does this time and again, even when handling the film’s central story concerning the bond forming between Jiale and Teresa (or Auntie Terry as he fondly calls her).

Although it would have been easier to play out the mother’s jealousy of the bond that her son and Teresa share as a comedy, the director chooses to explore it in other ways.

The skillfull contrast of the lightness of Jiale and Teresa’s developing relationship and the looming darkness of the family’s worsening economic situation is a delight to watch.

This film’s journey is a memorable and affecting one. It possesses the kind of understated style that will remind viewers of films by Japanese legends Yasujiro Ozu and Kore-eda Hirokazu. Although a drama, there’s also some humour in Ilo Ilo – there’s always something to chuckle at. Most of all, the movie is anchored by four absolutely talented actors with spot-on performances that make it a wonderful watch. Yeo gets the balance of sternness and love just right, while Chen simply projects kindness on screen in a way that’s 100% believable.

Bayani (familiar to those who know the work of Filipino auteur Lav Diaz) almost steals the show as the plucky and practical Teresa, but it’s little Jia Ler who gives the best performance. The 11-year-old boy is simply dynamite in every scene he’s in.

Whether he’s being a brat or being sympathetic or remorseful, this boy has a bright future as an actor. Chen, as a first-time feature film director, is also set to do more wonderful films, judging from this quiet but brilliant debut.

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Ilo Ilo


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