The Chinese title of Anthony Chen’s unassuming yet lovely debut feature, “Ilo Ilo,” translates as “Dad and Mom Are Not Home.” This is the situation faced by Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), the young boy at the center of Chen’s semi-autobiographical story, set in Singapore circa the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Economic circumstances in Jiale’s family, as well as the country at large, necessitate a two-income household. Jiale’s mother Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) works hard as a secretary at a shipping company, despite being rather far along in her pregnancy, while his father Teck (Chen Tianwen) struggles as a salesman while speculating in very risky stocks.
Jiale is an only child, and being left alone so often has made him starved for attention and affection, which is probably why he has become such a bratty terror both at home and at school. After Jiale is sent home for yet another disruptive incident at school, Hwee Leng, finally at her wits’ end, decides to hire Teresa (Angeli Bayani), a domestic helper from the Philippines, to help her with the housework and to keep Jiale out of trouble.
One of the great things about “Ilo Ilo” is how attuned it is, and astute about, class differences and the power relationships that result from these differences, without being heavy-handed or obvious about them. When Teresa arrives at the house, Hwee Leng makes Teresa surrender her passport so that she can’t run away. Jiale immediately resents this new presence in his house, and sets out to bully and shun her, refusing to eat around her. We soon see that this is a very common situation; the neighbors next door also have a Filipino helper that Teresa meets on occasion. It turns out that Teresa is a mother herself, having left an infant child back home, coming to Singapore to earn sufficient money to take care of her family in the Philippines.
“Ilo Ilo” unfolds very slowly and subtly, conveying the rhythms of daily life and revealing the nuances and layers of its characters gradually, which greatly increases the dramatic impact of its emotional conclusion. For example, despite Teresa’s lower status, she is far from being a doormat, harshly scolding Jiale when she has finally had enough of his antics and mean behavior. She later surreptitiously takes another job to earn more income when a financial crisis back home necessitates it, even though she risks losing her job and being deported if her employers find out.
Jiale’s mother and father emerge as more important characters in the film’s later scenes, as Singapore’s financial climate gets worse and directly impacts both of them. Hwee Leng is initially a rather overbearing character, constantly nagging and criticizing her husband and son. This also extends to her workplace, where she frequently takes time off work to handle home issues and other matters, despite the fact that massive layoffs are happening all around her. In fact, part of her job consists of drafting termination letters at the company. Later, however, we see that Hwee Leng’s argumentative and forbidding exterior masks a deep fear of losing the financial and family stability she has worked so hard to achieve. This manifests itself in her falling for the reassuring words of Jimmy Goh (Gim Goh), a slick motivational speaker she encounters. Hwee Leng is also painfully aware of how distant she has become from Jiale, which comes out in her jealousy as Jiale and Teresa’s relationship thaws as they become closer to one another.
Jiale’s father Teck also undergoes some interesting changes throughout the film, as his lack of sales skills and increasingly reckless stock speculation catches up with him. When he loses both his job and his stock money, he can’t bring himself to tell Hwee Leng, both because of his shame and his fear of facing his wife’s wrath. He also assiduously keeps his smoking habit away from Hwee Leng’s sight. Teck is much more sympathetic to Teresa than his wife is, often playing the good cop to his wife’s bad cop in their dealings with Teresa.
But the most crucial character change here happens between Jiale and Teresa. After Jiale breaks his arm in an accident caused by his rambunctiousness, the ice between them dissolves as Jiale begins to spend more time with Teresa more than his own parents. They eventually become close enough that Jiale begins referring to her affectionately as “Auntie Terry,” and Teresa becomes more and more a surrogate mother to Jiale.
Unfortunately, brutal economic realities force everyone to reorder their lives, and delicate emotional bonds that have been formed must be broken. Chen beautifully and carefully draws these characters, his low-key style setting us up for a surprising, emotionally moving conclusion. Even though his film is set in the ’90s, the details he has so skillfully conveyed of the economic situation of the time are extremely relevant to the present day. Chen admirably eschews sentimentality and period nostalgia in favor of lived-in, realistic-feeling elements that make this a remarkably assured debut feature.
The performers in “Ilo Ilo” also shine. Yeo Yann Yann as the mother and newcomer Koh Jia Ler as Jiale deftly take us past their characters’ prickly and initially off-putting personalities to reveal the much more complicated and layered people underneath. Angeli Bayani, best known for her roles in the films of Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, delivers one of her finest performances here, as a woman of lower status in Singapore’s society who becomes a central character – the film’s English title is named after Teresa’s home province in the Philippines.
In “Ilo Ilo,” Anthony Chen, who won the Camera D’Or for best first feature at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, beautifully mines personal details – Chen’s family also had a Filipina domestic helper named Teresa when he was young – to create a moving, memorable work of art.
“Ilo Ilo” screens at the San Diego Asian Film Festival on November 12 at 9 p.m. For more information, visit the festival’s website.
Video: ILO ILO director & cast Q&A – FIRESTORM World Premiere – 2013 ScreenSingapore (in Mandarin)
video by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine