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Chinese Cinema, Melodrama

Ilo Ilo (Singapore 2013)

Jaile brings Terry some shark's fin soup at his grandmother's birthday party. Terry has to sit outside the function room because there are no free chairs for her.

Jaile brings Terry some shark’s fin soup at his grandmother’s birthday party. Terry has to sit outside the function room because there are no free chairs for her.

The title of this film refers to a province of the Philippines, Iloilo, from where a new maid arrives in Singapore in 1997. The collapse of the ‘tiger economies’ is underway but it hasn’t yet hit the parents of ten year-old Jaile. He is a bright but unruly boy, missing his grandfather who died recently. Now his heavily pregnant mother is finding housework and a full-time job too much to cope with. Tension exists between her and the boy’s father, a not very successful salesman. The family is described as ‘middle-class’ in several reviews but this is a definition of Asian families that in the West might be better defined as ‘lower middle-class’. The family has little extra money and the maid is a necessity to allow mother to work.

The film is informed by the memories of its young writer-director Anthony Chen who developed a strong relationship with his own ‘yaya’ as a young boy. What he has created here is a well worked out and beautifully executed family drama which allows space for each of the four principal characters to have their own separate narratives – though it is the boy and Teresa (‘Terry’) the maid who tend to dominate. Chen studied film first at home in Singapore and later at the National Film School in the UK (where he met his French DoP Benoit Soler) – he is now based in London. There is that same mixing of influences – British social realism, Chinese and Japanese family drama/melodrama – that we associate with films from Ann Hui and other Hong Kong filmmakers as well as Taiwanese New Cinema directors. Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a useful reference, but I’ve also seen references back to Ozu and to contemporary Kore-eda. Not surprisingly perhaps, there are also glimpses of Eric Khoo’s work on Be With Me. The result is a first feature (after several shorts screened at festivals) that won the Camera d’or at Cannes in 2013.

The film is quite ‘clean’ and ‘open’ in its depiction of 1997 – it doesn’t have that same sense of atmosphere and city vibrancy that is often evident in the Hong Kong films leading up to the handover. Partly, I think, this is a function of the very different ‘feel’ in Singapore, characterised perhaps by the orderly ‘pledge to the nation’ made by the pupils at Jaile’s (English medium) grammar school. The sense of time and place is created in quite a subtle way, although younger audiences will probably spot the period markers more easily than older audiences. Jaile’s mother works on an electric typewriter and his father drives a battered Honda Accord. (I have difficulty in distinguishing car models over the last twenty years.)

The drama is quite straightforwardly constructed as a conventional ‘getting to know you’ narrative between the maid and the boy set against the problems arising from the stress the parents begin to feel as the recession bites. At first Jaile resents Terry’s presence and deliberately tries to make her life miserable but a dramatic incident brings them together and soon they are supporting each other. Overall, this is another of those ‘nothing much happens’ family narratives that stand in stark contrast to Hollywood entertainment. But what ‘doesn’t happen’ is actually absorbing, partly because of the excellent performances (by actors drawn from TV and film industries in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines plus a remarkable boy) but also the attention to detail. The only disappointment for me was not finding out more about the life Terry left behind to come to Singapore – there is a dramatic revelation but then little more. Is there any other nation that has exported so many workers overseas as the Philippines? There is a story there that needs to be told in more depth. In the meantime I look forward to more from Anthony Chen. This is another little gem, picked up by Soda Pictures in the UK, that requires much more exposure.

Press Pack (from US Film Movement website)

Official Trailer (which does give away many plot details):

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