Ilo Ilo: The little movie that could

Director Anthony Chen is still awestruck at the success of Ilo Ilo.

ANTHONY Chen, director of Ilo Ilo – the most internationally-awarded Singaporean film – still walks around in a “What the hell just happened” daze.

Or maybe he is just tired, having been travelling non-stop. “In one week, I’ve been to seven different countries!” he says, as he settles down to some strong black coffee.

Perhaps he’s beginning to settle into his new-found limelight too, but he still speaks about his feature debut with a tone of surprise and wonder.

“We didn’t predict any of this,” he says of Ilo Ilo’s international winning streak, having raked up about 20 awards, including those for Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann.

New wave: Anthony Chen, director of the award-winning Singapore film, Ilo Ilo, hopes to see new voices  emerging from the region’s cinema.

The little family drama, a semi-autobiographical look at a Singaporean family during the 1997 financial crisis, first drew attention when it won the Camera d’Or in Cannes in May last year. When it won Best Feature Film at Taiwan’s 50th Golden Horse Awards, as well as Best New Director for Chen, there was hardly anyone not paying attention anymore.

Ilo Ilo is also Singapore’s official submission to the Oscars’ Foreign Language Film category.

At the time of our interview in Kuala Lumpur, Ilo Ilo had grossed S$1.2mil (RM3.1mil) at the Singapore box-office, after a 14-week run.

But even Chen agrees that awards from film festivals could be damning for a film. Those olive branches on movie posters often mean, to the man on the street, that a film is abstract, artsy or inaccessible.

But nothing could be further from the truth in Ilo Ilo’s case. The film is an entertaining, moving story about the relationship between 10-year-old Jiale (Koh Jia Ler, who was chosen from auditions of 8,000 boys) and the family’s Filipina maid Teresa (Angeli Bayani, a well known actress in the Philippines’ independent cinema).

It is also imbued with a lot of humour, while avoiding overt sentimentality. Audiences around the world have laughed, cried and given the film standing ovations.

The lovely irony here is that in today’s Singapore where there is growing concern about the influx of immigrants, here’s a small film winning hearts with its story of inclusiveness.

Jiale is, at first, hostile towards Teresa, but soon finds in her the parental guidance and care lacking in his home (the film’s Chinese title translates as “Dad And Mum Are Not Home”). And there is also more to Teresa’s growing fondness for the boy, as the story gradually reveals.

“I was quite surprised by how universal the film is, because it is quintessentially very Singaporean,” says the 29-year-old, who lives in London where his wife is pursuing her PhD. “It can’t get any more Singaporean than that. But I’ve been to at least 25 countries with this film, and the responses have been very unanimous so far.”

When the film premiered in Toronto, Canada, a famous Hollywood director, whom Chen declined to name, told him: “This can be remade into an American film. It would be a white, middle-class family and a Mexican maid.”

Chen offers: “I was very surprised by the responses in India and Japan, where it won an audience award.And the press went gaga over it because they feel the film has Japanese sensibilities.”

Chen is still visibly awed by the film’s worldwide success. And far from trying to scientifically explain it, he gathers from audiences’ responses that it may be because the story is personal to him.

“The one thing that I keep hearing is how the film feels so honest and sincere,” says Chen. “The French critics thought it was so well thought-out, down to the smallest detail. But I told them, I wish I was that brilliant because I’m not that good a scriptwriter! It was a very organic process of finding things and putting them together. They thought it was very carefully mapped out.”

Chen took two years to finalise the script. Yet someone threw a spanner in the works, namely Yeo, who, after being chosen to play the mother, called him one day to say that she was pregnant.

“The first instinct was to drop her,” says Chen, who initially did not want to cast a familiar face and felt Yeo was too recognisable for her film and TV appearances.

“But I couldn’t find a replacement. I remember we sat in a cafe in Singapore for five hours and just talked and talked. Eventually she convinced me to keep her. I went back to the drawing board and rewrote the whole script.”

And he also had revenge on his mind.

“I told her, ‘You dropped this huge ball on me, now I’m going to drop one on you. I’m going to shoot your delivery,’” Chen laughs. “And that delivery room scene was her actual childbirth. In fact, I was the first one to see her baby, because her husband wasn’t allowed into the room.”

Ilo Ilo has been sold to over 20 countries. In France, it was the highest grossing Singaporean film, taking in €600,000 (RM2.7mil), according to Chen.

It’s still playing in Hong Kong and Taiwan, on small releases, and reportedly doing well.

This year, it will open in Britain, the United States, Sweden, South Korea and China.

In November last year, Chen famously declared to the media that he was down to his last S$250 (RM648) in his bank account, after travelling so much. So, is he better off financially now?

“Unfortunately I don’t have any equity in the film, even though the film is making money,” says Chen. “The TV sales have been very strong as well. But I’m not going to see any of the money, because we never expected the film to do well commercially.

“I didn’t have much (money) to begin with. For 10 years, I’ve had little. It’s nothing new to me!”

Chen hopes Ilo Ilo’s international success would mark a turning point for the region’s cinema.

“What I really hope to see is new voices in cinema emerging, with different ideas and different styles,” he says. “What’s interesting about Singapore and Malaysia is that we’re so multi-cultural, so diverse. Our cultures, our food, are just a rojak of everything.

“That should be our cinema as well. Our arts should be diverse, multi-faceted. If any region in the world should be like that, it’s us. So, I’m looking forward to a future for Singaporean and Malaysian cinema that is a cinema of possibilities and many voices.”

As for going against the old adage “Never work with children or animals”, Chen says: “I always like a challenge.”

Ilo Ilo opens in cinemas nationwide on Jan 2.

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