Title: Ilo Ilo
Language: Mandarin, Tagalog, English, Hokkien
Director: Anthony Chen
Writer: Anthony Chen
Cinematography: Benoit Soler
Yann Yann Yeo
Tian Wen Chen
Grace Jean Cruz
This flyweight Singaporean film is the surprising winner of Golden Horse Award in 2013, snatches 4 awards including BEST FILM honour from its stiff competitors, Johnny To’s DRUG WAR (2012), Zhangke Jia’s A TOUCH OF SIN (2013), Ming-liang Tsai’s STRAY DOGS (2013) and the frontrunner Kar Wai Wong’s THE GRANDMASTER (2013). First-timer director Anthony Chen wins BEST NEW DIRECTOR and ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY, while Yann Yann Yeo stands out in BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS race.
Under the curtains of Asian financial crisis in the mid-90s, Anthony’s first feature closely examines an ordinary Singaporean nuclear family’s happenings when a new Philippine maid Terry (Bayani) is arranged to help out with the chores and take care of the 10-year-old brat Jialer (Koh) as his mother Hwee Leng (Yeo) is pregnant with a second child and is swamped by her daily office work, whereas the father Teck (Chen), a salesman, is on the brink of losing his job due to the unhealthy market.
The film’s mandarin title can be literally translated as “when parents are not at home”, so audience may assume that the major chunk of the story would involve the interaction between Jailer and Terry, a spoiled schoolboy and a wide-eyed interloper, surely it is what happens, their narrative arc is too predictable yet Anthony’s camera unassumingly records the changeover with poise and impartiality, Jiale is an really imp, not only in school, his initial hostility towards Terry will understandably thaw when they spend more time together to understand each other during the absence of the parents, since Terry takes on the duty of a caregiver whom Jiale is desperately in need of.
Meanwhile, Hwee Leng and Teck loom large in the storyline too, the former suffers from the angst due to the budding affinity between Jialer and Terry (her worst nightmare is to be supplanted by an outsider for the maternal bond with her child), also is victimised in a faith-boosting racket, and repeatedly inculcates herself with the empty slogan “Hope is within myself” to sustain her belief in the troubled water. The ambivalence of her psychology is impeccably conducted by Yeo, who is overflowing with compelling nuances and tenable craft, the same can be said to Tian Wen Chen, a veteran actor (personally I watched many TV series starring him during my childhood), showcases his most authentic emotion under the helm of Anthony’s intuitive perspicacity as the father who conceals his misery with disguised front of dignity required for the man of the family.
The film is also an excellent example of leaving out the unnecessary verbal communications and balances the contents with exchanges of eye-contact or the tacit silence, which is not a easy task to accomplish, but here, it is a marvel to behold (e.g. the maid Vs. hostess scenario is perpetually piquant under various contexts). Anthony Chen injects tons of human touch into the quotidian storyline (the strand in the cemetery vignette for example), enriches each character with the inescapable pressure from surviving, even for Jailer, he has to pay for his misbehaviour and accepts the unavoidable separation in a hard way.
Overall, ILO ILO is exceedingly levelheaded and structurally faultless for a neophyte, its attentive intimacy toward the common lives reminisces of Ann Hui’s top-notch THE WAY WE ARE (2008), Anthony Chen is no wonder a name worthy noticing for his future projects and on his way to bring more glory to his itty-bitty motherland.