Singaporean film “Ilo Ilo” (2013) by first-time film-maker Anthony Chen boasts a premise that has repeatedly scrutinized in the recent times: the financial crisis and its impact on a middle-class family. Yet, there is something refreshing about this movie. It is a fairly straight-forward, character-driven drama, but unlike many recession era movies, it has a strong domestic focus. Although it might seem like a dry subject, director Chen has infused subtle humor and heart-breaking realism to keep us attentive.
The movie is set in the late 90’s, when Southeast Asia faced one of big financial crisis. The unemployment and suicide rates went rising. The Singapore, we see in this film, isn’t the tourist’s paradise. Instead the hand-held camera that moves through tight spots immediately makes us feel for those families that reside within this concrete jungle. When the film starts, the ten year old Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) pulls up a prank at this teacher, and immediately ends up in the principal’s office. His pregnant mother Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann), who works as a secretary, is called to the school.
The mother’s reaction tells us that this isn’t first time she is getting a call from school regarding her son’s behavior. She is also worried about the fact that her firm is laying off workers at a faster rate. At school, she is made clear that Jiale would face expulsion if doesn’t clear up his act. Father Teck (Chen Tian Wen) also faces heavy challenge in his salesman job. Jiale’s obnoxious behavior has increased ever since the demise of his beloved grandfather. He’s doing all sorts of things to get his parents’ attention. To restore some peace in their household, the parents decide to hire a live-in maid. The new maid Teresa (Angeli Bayani) is from Philippines (from the ‘Ilo Ilo’ province), and has left her toddler son, back at home.
She shares the room with Jiale, and the unruly child immediately begins to bully and defy her. Around this time, the father Teck is fired from his job, and loses everything in the stock market. He starts to work as a security guy in some warehouse. Hwee Leng starts to attend self-improvement lectures, held by a tricky entrepreneur. However, Teresa brings some resilience to this vicious family atmosphere. He earns affection and respect from Jiale, and becomes ‘Auntie Terry’.
Director Chen hasn’t built his plot points through sentimentality. He takes us through the family’s everyday life – like showering, eating, doing laundry, working, picking the boy at school etc – and gradually vents out the secrets and lies that lies beneath the calm facade. All the little details and character interactions isn’t just realists; it is relatable. The characters we see in the movie are like us – far from perfection. They lie; they make bad decisions, and spoil themselves with a little dose of vanity. But, at the same time they find a way through their problems without breaking down. The director doesn’t make his characters to reiterate the word, ‘life is hard’, because we can easily sense it from their every-day life.
If there is one character, we feel some kind of aggravation, and then it might be the mother’s (Hwee Leng). She demands Terry’s passport as soon as she enters the house, and talks to her in a voice to remind Terry that she occupies a lower rung in the social status. She never admonishes her son, when he reacts in an appalling manner against Terry. She wages a cold war with Terry when Jiale shows more affection towards the maid. She even disapproves the fact that her maid is a catholic. In another movie, the mother character would have been easily demonized by construing more bad behavior. But, Chen keeps us from passing a judgment on Hwee Leng, as in the end we begin to sympathize with her (especially after falling for the pitch of ‘get-rich quickly’ lectures). All the remaining three characters were also wonderfully realized. Terry’s isn’t portrayed as the messianic figure, who helps a family at troubled times.
|The Real 'Auntie Terry' with Director Anthony Chen (Left) and Christopher Chen (Right)|
The movie is said to be based on Chen’s own childhood, who grew up with a Filipina maid. The mother’s pregnancy was included in the plot, when the actress, Yann fell pregnant before the shoot, persuading the director to rewrite her character. Director Chen perfectly captures the bitter-sweet nature that runs through middle-class life. Chen’s directorial style reminded me of the Taiwanese master Edward Yang’s movies. He not only showcases the division between poor and rich, in a globalized world, but also ponders over the arrogance and lordly attitude of the privileged. The scene where Jiale is flogged in the school auditorium, in front of students, might represent one of the horror tales we might have heard regarding Singapore’s law enforcement system.
“Ilo Ilo” (98 minutes) is a relatable family drama, told with empathy and resilience. It is a subtle and touching understatement on the tragedy of human condition.