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Singapore's Anthony Chen: 'It’s a New Chapter for Our Local Cinema' (Busan Q&A)

Anthony Chen P 2013
Anthony Chen

The 29-year-old auteur discusses why his Cannes winner (and Oscar hopeful) "Ilo Ilo" could be a game changer for the Singaporean film business.

Anthony Chen has been living out the debut director’s dream in 2013. His first feature, Ilo Ilo -- a subtle domestic drama about a Singaporean family who hire a Filipina maid to care for their young son during the hard times of the 1990s Asian Economic Crisis – won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was then selected as Singapore’s entry to the Oscars and received six nominations for Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards – Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong even attended the local premiere to offer Chen special congratulations. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the 29-year-old director about Ilo Ilo’s surprisingly universal appeal and why it could be a game changer for Singaporean cinema.

STORY: Oscars: Singapore Nominates 'Ilo Ilo' in Foreign Language Category

THR: How autobiographical is Ilo Ilo

Anthony Chen: I would say that the film is inspired by childhood memories, but not completely autobiographical. I spent most of my childhood in Singapore in the 90s, so that’s a period that I understand very well. For my first feature, I wanted to make something that was close to my heart. I didn’t know what that would be, but a lot of memories that I had been repressing came into my head at that time. I remembered this Filipino lady who was with us for so long when I was growing up – eight years as our maid. When I was 12, we took her to the airport because she was going back home to the Philippines. I was already 12, but I cried and cried and it was really painful. I thought there was something complex in that relationship that I didn’t quite understand, so I went off to write a film about it.

THR: In much of the West, importing a live-in maid from a developing country is a rather bourgeois notion, but in many parts of Asia it’s quite commonplace for middle-class families. Have you found that audiences from Asia and elsewhere have responded to the film differently?

Chen: What has surprised me is that there is a universal quality to the film that I didn’t know was there when I was making it. When it premiered at Cannes and screened in Toronto, people said it reminded them of the dynamic of growing up with their au pair. Americans have said it could be made about a Mexican maid or gardener.

But audiences in Singapore do definitely see it in a different way. Some people are saying that it may be a bit too close to home for them. If you put them in a domestic space it is almost like putting a mirror in front of them. And yet it has done well at the box office. Most of the work coming out of Singapore are wacky comedies or horror stuff. Local critics say they had never seen something so raw and naturalistic before in Singapore cinema. It was fresh.

FILM REVIEW: Ilo Ilo

THR: How about Filipino audiences?

Chen: In Hong Kong and Singapore we had a few screenings for domestic helpers that were sponsored by a local non-profit. It’s funny because they laughed really loud. They saw certain nuances that the Singaporeans and other audiences never would see and they cried so hard. There have been domestic helper characters in Southeast Asian films before, but they are usually quite derogatory or tokenistic – this is something different. It was wonderful to see how very personally they reacted to it.

THR: And what did the win at Cannes mean to you?

Chen: I would say that it did two things. It shined a light on Singaporean cinema and European producers are all of a sudden excited to explore co-productions here, to see what else we’re putting out. 

For myself, the film has found favor with a lot of producers in France and the U.K. I want to make my second film here in London, because I have been living there for several years. It’s opened up a lot of opportunities; funding is the least of my worries now – and usually that’s one of the biggest problems for filmmakers in Southeast Asia.

THR: How do you think the film will impact the Singaporean film business?

Chen: It’s a new chapter for Singaporean cinema because this film has not only won Singapore's first award for a feature at Cannes, but it’s also done well in terms of international sales. Off the back of its premier and reviews it sold to France, Switzerland, the U.K., the U.S., Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and later on Japan, Korea, Turkey, and Portugal. We just released it to quite a few territories in South America and Central America. In France, we opened on 80 screens the first week and expanded to 96 screens. So it’s actually surprised a lot of people in the local industry. There were a lot of naysayers when I started making this film. A lot of people asked me, “Why are you making a film about a Filipino maid and a boy? That’s probably the most boring film you could possibly make.”

Many said that for a festival film, it wasn’t sociopolitical enough, and it wasn’t nearly commercial enough to get a general release. The success has come as a complete surprise, which is why it’s going to become a case study for many years to come here. It subverted a lot of expectations of what could be and couldn't be done in Singapore.