December 7, 2013
This film "Ilo Ilo" put Singapore on the map of world cinema when it won the Camera D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Finally, it is now being shown here in the country where the titular place name originates.
We do not even hear the word "Ilo Ilo" mentioned during the film's 99-minute running time, though we do hear the maid Terry speak in the Ilonggo dialect of Iloilo province when she makes a long-distance phone call back home. I doubt if non-Filipinos will recognize that little linguistic detail, so they might wonder about the English title. The Mandarin title of this film is actually "Father, Mother Not At Home." This was exactly what the movie was all about.
We meet a middle-class Singaporean family, the Lims, feeling the crunch of the Asian Economic Crisis during the late 1990s. The father has lost his job in sales and has to make do by accepting a more menial job. The mother is pregnant with their second child, and has a thankless clerical job, typing letters for employees about to lose their jobs. The son Jiale is a naughty little rascal who is obsessed with the lottery, his Tamagotchi and getting himself sent to the Principal's office.
To help with the household chores and to take care of Jiale, the couple decide to hire a maid from the Philippines, Teresa. It was a huge challenge for Terry to get integrated into the family system and into Jiale's troubled life, but she eventually does. But as the Lims continued to experience escalating monetary woes, they need to make an important decision about Terry.
This is actually a simple story of a family going through rough financial times and their relationship with their helper. We usually see this type of story from the point of view of the helper, but this time we see the employer's perspective.
The actors who play Lim family are very real in their roles. Tian Wen Chen essays the down-on-his-luck father role with just the right amount of humor. Yeo Yan Yan portrays the frustrations of her character with her life, her husband AND her son very well. Her inner conflicts when she sees Jiale bonding with his Auntie Terry were eloquently reflected on her face. The child actor who plays Jiale is quite the natural in his portrayal. It was surprising to find out later that this was his first ever film role, maybe that is why it was bereft of artificiality.
As for Terry, we don't really know who she was before she came here. She has several skills like cutting hair or driving, but what exactly did she do for a living before going to Singapore? We will also not know what will happen to her after her last scene. Teresa was not really the main character here but she was the important catalyst for the family's story to be more interesting. Filipina actress Angeli Bayani hits the right notes in this role, perfectly mixing her character's timidity and subservience with loyalty and dignity.
Director Anthony Chen toned down everything in his treatment of this story, the script of which he himself wrote based from his own memories about his childhood and his Filipina yaya (or baby sitter). The colors were muted to almost a pale sepia. There were no scenes of exaggerated melodrama, no over-the-top shouting nor crying, which makes the emotions so authentic. The actors were all subdued in their acting, which makes the performances so realistic. You can feel that the intentions of the film were only modest, but the sincerity is very palpable, and that is what makes the film connect so well with its audiences. 9/10.