Standing Ovation for Ilo-Ilo

in 10th Jameson Cinefest Miskolc International Film Festival

by Radmila Djurica

The FIPRESCI jury at Jameson Cinefest Miskolc IFF 2013 decided, after the hard work of ten days, to award the Singapore film Ilo-Ilo, directed by the Singapore director Anthony Chen. This is Chen’s first feature film, which had been selected for the Camera d’Or award at the 66th Cannes International Film Festival. Chen’s film focuses on the relationship between a typical Chinese-Singaporean family and their Christian maid Terry (Angeli Bayani). The film also reflects very well on the peak of the Asian financial crisis in late 1997.

This is the first Singapore film produced as an independent indie feature film to receive the Camera d’Or in Cannes, depicting conventional every-day life. The film conveys a small story, while the film contains a perfect and small amount of those features that would lure a Western audience into the story and gain the critic’s attention.

Terry is a maid, domestic aid and nanny who keeps the naughty and slightly neglected boy happy while his parents are at work. There are different kinds of maids nowadays, and Terry proves to be clever and resilient enough to win the attention of the family and therefore for their son to obey his domestic duties. For any nanny, getting respect from children in their early teens is a hard job, while the ongoing cold war between the jealous and territorial mother is an even harder. Hungry for the attention from his parents, the boy Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) makes trouble at school, but Terry finds her way to the boy’s heart.

The story contains autobiographical elements of the filmmaker, and is actually inspired by Chen’s maid; therefore the film is titled with the name of the Philippine province from whence Chen’s maid came. Ilo-Ilo depicts very well the class and racial tensions in Singapore’s society of the 1990s, after huge economical and political changes, by just picturing a household and showing the characters’ hidden positivity and warmth. These markers of ‘mentality’ are what is usually well hidden in the families of Western societies. “When I was making the film, initially I thought it was culturally specific and particular to the Singapore context [in which many families employ a domestic helper, mostly to look after the children]. But for the audiences at Cannes, this was a film about motherhood, childhood and growing up. Ilo Ilo was also set against the background of the financial crisis, which was something people can relate to”,explained Chen.

The film underlines love and a good and healthy sense of humour that best reveals family values. And the brilliant acting of Bayani, all so natural in her clumsiness, conveys the character’s anxiety and burden of being alone in a foreign country so well. She emits dignity, but her character is not too dedicated or portrayed as a martyr. She gives not too much of herself, but just enough to give love and portray a pragmatic enough young woman, who can rely on very little in order to survive. The bittersweet ending underlies the social and financial changes in 1990’s Singapore. Of course, there is the boy Jiale with a dynamic personality, loyal to his nanny, beneath all his bratty little tricks of a boy with a wild temper.

Ilo Ilo is a gentle and quiet study of culture, society and relations of different nature, where often nannies slip into the shoes of surrogate mothers. The film is about the way how people connect during great social upheavals. The story is clear and uninterrupted, with no superfluous or tempered emotions, which is what Asian societies are really like: no unnecessary complications or unexpected twists, with a plot that aims at the attention of a certain class. The film is simple and cinematically perfect, and it is certainly not boring in any sense of that word.

Edited by Birgit Beumers