If fledgling director Anthony Chen carries on making assured, gentle yet emotionally nuanced films like his feature debut Ilo Ilo, we may have a new Singaporean auteur to match those of Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda and South Korea’s Lee Chang-dong – both purveyors of rich, rewarding family dramas that plumb the depth of life’s quotidian canvas. His understated style and genuine concern for detail and character has already won him plaudits in Cannes last year, bagging Camera d’Or and heaping tremendous praises along other festival circuits around the world. It’s no surprise – Chen’s first film is brimming with confidence behind the lens and compassion for the people portrayed in front of his camera, perhaps influenced by the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang, whose final masterpiece Yi-Yi (A One and A Two…) is unmistakably palpable all over Ilo Ilo‘s cinematic DNA. Both films portray the family nuclei with observational approach, eschewing grand overreaching statements in favour of the viscissitudes of daily life. While Chen’s film is no modern masterwork, it remains impressive for a debut that compels critics to draw comparison to Yang’s sublime swansong.
Chen’s focus here is a Singaporean family slowly being crippled by the late 1990’s Asian economic crisis, and more significantly the burgeoning surrogate relationship between a middle-class couple’s recalcitrant problem child Jiale and his lived-in Filipino maidservant Teresa, or Terry. The concept of hiring nannies to look after spoiled bourgeois kids is nothing new in cinema, and films about the tribulations of overseas workers in foreign land is oft-portrayed in Asian cinema, but Ilo Ilo is no The Nanny Diaries. Chen manages to set aside clichés and downplay the sentiment, as he delicately charts the subtle changes in this family’s domestic life, and wonderfully lends humanity to every single character involved in his semi-autobiographical narrative. The parents Heck and Leng, both fraying from the pressures of work and spiralling employment opportunities, tend to neglect the ten-year old Jiale, whose behaviour borders on deliquency both at home and school, becoming both a nightmare to his teachers and to his own nanny.
Tiang Yen Chen and Yann Yann Yeo give solid performances as the depressed parents, but it’s the duo of child actor Koh Jia Ler and Filipina actress Angeli Bayani that give Ilo Ilo its warm, beating heart. Initially bellicose towards the nanny, even going so far as bullying her and framing her for shoplifting, Jiale begins to form an unexpected friendship with the maid Terry – whose indefatigable steadfastness becomes the film’s thrust. This woman has fled her own country, leaving her own child in the Philippine province of the title, to provide employed care to somebody else’s offspring. Despite economic uncertainty and the child’s hellraising behaviour, she commits to show the boy discipline, warmth, love and care as he were her very own. It’s this tender, soulful dynamics and the performances of Koh and Bayani that makes Ilo Ilo incredibly affecting. I dare anyone to emerge from the film’s final scenes with a dry eye.