Ilo Ilo

The momentous debut feature film by our very own Anthony Chen, which took home the coveted Camera d’Or award at Cannes earlier this year, is a straightforward and unpretentious family drama set in the ‘90s during the financial crisis. Based on Chen’s own childhood, Ilo Ilo is uncomplicated and ordinary;  yet it is infused with such tender loving care that there is absolutely no real excuse to fault it. Although if it weren’t for its recent accolade, it could have very well pass off as a TV drama—albeit a very well-made one—with its predictable theme of domestic disturbances (misbehaving brat in school, foreign maid in peril), the plot devices are oh-so simply and clearly laid out.

12-year-old Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) is every parents’ living nightmare. Not only is he in the habit of getting into small fights in school, he is also an ill-disciplined kid at home. Pregnant mom Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) has about had it with his antics, and so employs Filipino maid Teresa (Angeli Bayani) to care for the child while she is at work. Although Jiale is at first hostile to his maid, even to the point of getting her into trouble at a local stationery store, he slowly warms up to her following a minor road accident which leaves him with a bandaged arm. But as it turns out, Jiale is getting way too close to Teresa, at least according to the increasingly jealous Hwee Leng, who holds an unwarranted and bitter suspicion towards their new maid. And as the financial crisis hits closer to home, with dad Teck (Tian Wen Chen) out of the job, the family will later learn how to cope within the family unit without Teresa.

There are no arty flourishes in Ilo Ilo (long pensive takes that have become the norm for Asian cinema are refreshingly absent) as director Chen opts for naturalistic performances and a straightforward script (with clever details and human observations) to do the job. With those pillars in place, he focuses on both set and costume designs (all painstakingly vetoed by the self-confessed obsessive compulsive director) to elevate the film’s realism. Yeo in particular is impressive as the short-tempered Hwee Leng, realistically unravelling before our eyes. But  the real revelation here is first timer Koh, whose inexperience only adds a believable and surprisingly likeable edge to his rebel child role, and his chemistry with veteran Filipino actress Bayani is palpable. Ilo Ilo may not offer anything new to local cinema, but it is certainly one of our most well-crafted films in recent years.