Ilo Ilo
Director: Anthony Chen
Cast: Yeo Yann Yann, Chen Tian Wen, Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani
Production: Singapore Film Commission, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Fisheye Pictures

The pregnant mother discovers there isn’t enough money in the angbao (red packet) meant for her mom’s birthday and chides her husband for embarrassing the family. She promptly places hundred bucks in the packet to avoid “losing face”.

This simple and delicate scene epitomises the spirit of Ilo Ilo, the debut feature from Anthony Chen which won the Camera d’Or for best first feature film at Cannes Film Festival. On the surface, it is a drama centred on a Filipino maid, Teresa, working for a seemingly functional Singaporean nuclear family unit.

But beyond the rose-tinted façade lies a film layered with social issues such as xenophobia, transnational migration, materialism and autocracy, with flawed and vulnerable characters on the verge of revelation, stripped of its indomitability.

Teresa (played by the seasoned theatre actress Angeli Bayani), or affectionately known as “Auntie Terry” to the family’s spoilt and overbearing son, Jiale (played by the precocious first-timer Kor Jia Ler), arrives in Singapore foreign to the confines of a high-rise HDB flat and finds comfort and familiarity in the repetitive music playing on her Walkman and fellow Filipino community at Lucky Plaza, a shopping mall.

Her employers are Hwee Leng (played by Yeo Yann Yann with tenacity and stoicism), the pregnant mother putting the house in order and Teck (played by the versatile Chen Tian Wen, a household name in local television dramas), recently fired from his sales job. Set against the Asian financial crisis in 1997, this is a family suffering from financial difficulties, trapped in its disenchanted milieu.

Teresa assimilates into the family, winning the trust of the hyperactive Jiale and becomes a confidant to the detached Teck. In a poignant and innocuous scene deftly executed by Anthony, Teresa bathes Jiale and carries his naked self on her back, which speaks of a deep affinity forged between the foreign caregiver and child, the former replacing the role of the Mother.

Ilo Ilo, named after a province in Philippines, is a semi-autobiographical account based on Anthony’s younger days in the 90s where his family grew up with a Filipino maid (read their teary reunion on Yahoo!).

The inspiration, as personal as it gets, brings a dose of realism and sensitivity to the common struggle experienced by most families going through difficult times, the sense of helplessness permeating the film as seen in Teck’s discreet smoking in the common corridor and taking on odd jobs as a security guard to make ends meet.

Steeped in saturated tones, the film invokes nostalgia for most Singaporeans, including this writer who is of the same age as Anthony. From the electronic Tamagotchi toy juxtaposed with Jiale playing chapteh (traditional game involving a shuttlecock) at the void deck, to an old but reliable manual-stick Honda car driven by Teck quietly to the scrapyard, these are familiar objects* of yesteryear playing a secondary role in the film.

It is Anthony’s subtle way of telling the audience how the little tangible things in life were easily replaced with shiny new things in a society transfixed in changing landscapes quickly. Now, in a post-materialism era, we are pinning silly for such objects but I digress.

Although most scenes are set in the flat, it hardly feels claustrophobic given the director’s use of a handheld camera to inject dynamism into the film. The characters are always in a state of flux, evolving, changing and grappling with issues such as the mother’s esteem (signing up for motivational workshops), patriarch’s pride (washing his uniform in secrecy) and son’s discipline in school (a public caning ensues).

And while some of the household issues are deeply invested in the Singaporean psyche, Teresa’s endeavour to come to terms with the cultural norms of a foreign land resonates with a wider audience, especially the Europeans, which hint of its Cannes win.

Such scenes are in danger of descending into melodrama, but thanks to Anthony’s art house sensibilities and a talented cast, the film rises above mediocrity with an authentic and emotional centre – Teresa and Jiale’s nuanced caregiver-child relationship that is crystalised, affected and separated in a short continuum, a slice of a Singaporean’s life that we may have unwittingly forgotten.

Ronald Wan is a freelance writer. He has contributed reviews and features for this website since 2002.

*I spotted an Abercrombie & Fitch paper bag in a scene, which contradicts the 90s look of the film. Abercrombie & Fitch opened in Singapore in 2012. But hey, it’s okay lah.