Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Ilo Ilo – Anthony Chen

Ilo Ilo (Ba Ma Bu Zai Jia) (Anthony Chen – Singapore) 99 minutes

Anthony Chen’s debut feature won the Caméra d’Or – awarded for the best first film screened at Cannes – the first Singaporean film to win a prize at the festival. It is an assured, if modest, film (Chen is still only 29) and announces the arrival of a talent for the future. Ilo Ilo (named, one presumes, for the Philippine city) takes place against the backdrop of the Asian financial crisis of early 1998. The Lim family takes on a Filipino maid, Teresa (Angeli Bayani) to care for their ten-year-old son Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), who is quite a handful. Father Teck (Tian Wen Chen) soon loses his job as the economy begins to bite, his notice having been filed by his own wife Hwee Leng (Yann Yann Yeo), who is a clerk in the same shipping company. There is no explicit questioning of the financial system that caused the crash – though there were plenty such crises in the 1990s, in Asia, Russia and South America, neoliberal orthodoxy was still absolute in those days. The pressures of finding a job, and in the case of Hwee Leng, holding onto hers while expecting a second child, do however work on the family, whose troubles are not helped by Jiale’s continuous disciplinary problems at school.

The family are initially wary of Teresa; Hwee Ling confiscates her passport (which Teresa surrenders without protest) for fear that she might abscond suddenly. But the Lims do not subject her to the horrendous cruelty that befalls many immigrant maids from South-East Asia; if anything, they are relatively sympathetic towards her. Hwee Leng gradually becomes slightly jealous as Teresa’s bond with Jiale inevitably strengthens while Teck is friendlier, in his own gauche manner. Chen has an unobtrusive filming style and is particularly good with actors. Bayani is excellent as Teresa, who has left her own infant child with her uncaring sister to come work in Singapore; early on she displays a surprising toughness when she reprimands Jiale after he plays a prank on her that results in her being detained by security guards in a supermarket. This ultimately wins the young brat over.

If there is one flaw with the Ilo Ilo, it is it’s all a bit predictable. The odd-couple-coming-together trope is well worn and was treated more interestingly in Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thai film Mundane History (2009, but released in Europe this year). There is no real mystery in how the film is going to pan out. That said, it is a well-made first film and Chen, if given meatier subject matter, is likely to produce something very good indeed.