by Benjamin Ho
Ilo Ilo made history when it became the first Singaporean film to win an award at the Cannes film festival. Not the Palm d’Or, but the Camera d’Or. I’d never heard of that award before the news broke. Was the Camera d’Or any special? Turns out it is – it is an award for the best feature film debut of any director. Props, Anthony Chen!
I’m not very familiar with Anthony Chen’s oeuvre – although I no longer have any excuse now that Viddsee is hosting his short films online – but with his Cannes win, I was anticipating something special when I went down to the theatre to catch Ilo Ilo.
Its headscratching English name doesn’t give any clue as to what the movie is about (if anyone knows what it means pray tell) but its Chinese title means ‘Father and Mother Aren’t Home’. This is the crux of the story; not just the movie’s, but of many lower- to middle-class Singaporean families who hire a maid. Not out of luxury, but because a maid is required to take care of the kids so both parents can bring home enough bacon.
The story begins with an introduction to a mischievous and ill-disciplined boy in his teacher’s office. It is implied that this is not his first time, and that his frequent delinquencies have interrupted his pregnant mother at work many times before. Even from the beginning, the tiredness of both parents – portrayed by Chen Tianwen and Yeo Yann Yann – is palpable. Into this struggling family, Theresa, who is addressed as ‘Terry’, is introduced.
Ilo Ilo just exudes Singaporeanness, not unlike Boo Junfeng’s Sandcastle. Set in 1997 under the shadow of the Asian financial crisis, the cinematography reflects the gloom of that period with a slightly undersaturated palette. Extensive attention to detail is paid in ensuring that elements of the 90s – your childhood for most of you reading this – are recreated and recalled. Back are the frumpy dresses and hairstyles, the CRT monitors, and that obsolescent electronic toy, the Tamagotchi. In this setting, we not only get a glimpse and a reminder of the financial and employment struggles some Singaporean families were facing, but also of the Filipinos who come to Singapore to work; Terry, at her young age, is compelled to come here even though her own child is only a few months old, and decides to moonlight in order to earn a bit more to remit. The maid next door warns Terry darkly, ‘Here, there is no God.’ The crisis may have been economic, but it also permeates and threatens to break the basic unit of society – Singaporean or Filipino, father and mother can’t be home. And at the centre of this is a troubled child who cannot get the attention he needs to develop into a well-adjusted young boy.
The despair doesn’t pervade absolutely, though. Peppered throughout are short moments of levity and black humour, and it is the maid’s entrance that begins the family’s slow journey towards learning to become a better one. The path upwards is rocky of course, filled with setbacks such as retrenchment. Is there any hope that the story of this family will end well? A motivational speaker in the film reminds us that ‘through crisis come opportunities’, and that ‘our hope is within’. Can we believe him? The story leaves a small possibility that perhaps, maybe we can.
In Anthony Chen’s short Karang Guni, he weaves a tale around another motif of a bygone era with the message that just like the trade that passes through Singapore, the people that come by, while not Singaporean, can profoundly affect us. A similar thread runs through Ilo Ilo: by the end of the movie, the maid has left an indelible mark on the lives of this Singaporean family. It is a good reminder that while these guests may be transient, they are as much a part of Singapore as Singaporeans themselves.
Ilo Ilo is currently showing in cinemas.