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Launching his feature debut in Cannes, where his short film Ah Ma earned a special mention in 2007, the 29-year-old Singapore director Anthony Chen paints a bittersweet vignette of family life in Ilo Ilo. Striking a fortuitously topical note, the backdrop is the Asian financial crisis of 1997, with unemployment and suicide rates rising.
But Chen’s interest has a tighter domestic focus, gently probing the unspoken fault lines of class, race and age that run through modern, multicultural Singapore. The result is a crisp little drama with confident indie-movie polish, though the slight story and conventional subject matter lack bite. Interest seems likely from Asian markets and further festivals, but there is too little dramatic spark here to attract overseas audiences.
Koh Jia Ler plays Jiale, a spoilt Singapore schoolboy who runs rings around his exasperated teachers and long-suffering parents, pregnant mother Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) and her newly unemployed husband Teck (Chen Tian Wen), When a timid new Filipino domestic worker, Teresa – aka “Auntie Terry” (Angeli Bayani) – moves into the family flat, the unruly brat instantly begins defying and bullying her. But beneath her placid surface, Terry proves a smart and resilient addition to the family. Becoming confidante to both father and son, she slowly earns respect and affection from Jiale, unwittingly entering a frosty cold war of territorial jealousy with his mother.
Named after a province of the Phillippines, Ilo Ilo is a personal project for Chen, who grew up in 1990s Singapore with a Filipino maid and a family suffering financial woes. The mother’s pregnancy was a fictionalized twist on autobiographical events, incorporated into the plot after Yann fell pregnant before the shoot, persuading the director to rewrite her character accordingly. A photo montage of her in hospital with her new-born baby plays over the film’s closing credits.
Finely acted and minutely observed, Ilo Ilo certainly has the texture of real life. The performances feel authentic, the emotional shadings agreeably nuanced. It may be damning Chen’s film with faint praise to observe that it also captures the bittersweet banality of middle-class family life with almost numbing accuracy. But faint praise is probably the most honest response to a low-key exercise in domestic navel-gazing that blurs the line between subtle understatement and tasteful tedium.
Production companies: Singapore Film Commission, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Fisheye Pictures
Producers: Ang Hwee Sim, Anthony Chen, Wahyuni A. Hadi
Starring: Angeli Bayani, Yeo Yann Yann, Koh Jia Ler, Chen Tianwen
Director: Anthony Chen
Writer: Anthony Chen
Cinematographer: Benoit Soler
Editors: Hoping Chen, Joanne Cheong
Sales company: Memento Films International
Unrated, 99 minutes
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