Ilo Ilo brings back warm memories

My son has not been back to Singapore for nine years. I took him to watch the film to see if it could remind him of life there

It has been almost nine years since my son, Sean, has been back home to Singapore. So when I spotted a movie title I had heard so much about while flipping through the nearly 200-page programme of the 38th Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF38), I was determined to get tickets for him and myself.

"There are 1,400 miles (2,253km) between Ilo Ilo in the Philippines and Singapore, where Teresa comes to serve as a maid to Teck and Hwee Leng Lim, a Mandarin-speaking family," read the first line of the notes under a photograph and the title of the award-winning film directed by Anthony Chen.

There are many more miles between Cleveland and Singapore - over 15,260km - about as far as you can get between two cities in fact.

Sean was only four when - for better or worse - we moved to my hometown in the United States. I wanted to be nearer to my dad who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease and died in 2006. Now my mother has dementia and we will soon help care for her when she moves into our home from an assisted living facility.

In June, Sean and his mother will make their first trip since 2005 to visit his Singaporean grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. Even though it will be just for a few weeks, I thought it would be fun to ease him back into HDB life by taking him to see Ilo Ilo before they leave.

From what I'd read about the film, I wondered whether it would jog some memories of his hometown and see his reaction to seeing a slice of life there, circa 1997. As I would soon discover, both Singapore's warts (Ah Boy bullying his Filipino maid Terry) and splendour (Ah Boy, shedding tears when the financial crisis forces the family to send her home), are on display.

Sean has been learning Mandarin at Brecksville Broadview Heights Middle School, where he is now in eighth grade. So I wanted to expose him to a Singaporean family speaking it, along with a few dialects. For myself, I actually looked forward to hearing some Singlish again.

Finally, I was curious to see the reaction of an audience deep in the heart of middle America to a movie that, as expected, proved to be so Singaporean.

The Cleveland International Film Festival, in fact, is the largest film festival between New York and Chicago. This year's edition, which ended on March 30, screened 180 feature films and 165 short films from more than 180 countries, and attracted 220 visiting film-makers and a record audience of nearly 98,000 over its 12 days.

Thus, it was not surprising to find a sizeable audience for the second showing of Ilo Ilo, even though it was a workday Wednesday afternoon the night after its Cleveland premier.

What was surprising was that only two of the more than 100 people I counted were Asians, as Cleveland has a significant Asian minority, if you don't count my son's half-and-half mix.

As Ilo Ilo unfolded in the Geylang-like halls of Tower City cinema, I immediately found my eyes watering as I was swept back to one of the happiest times in my life.

In 1997, I was working for The Straits Times Life! section while moonlighting in a dream spot as the host of Zach's Trax - where I focused on music made-in-Singapore - on the old Heart 91.3.

At first, Sean slumped in his seat, looking bored to find a tale unfolding about a family adjusting to life with a Filipino maid, instead of aliens invading earth. But soon, I noticed him sit up, able to relate to a schoolboy just a bit younger than himself, suffering through school like boys anywhere in the world who would rather be playing video games.

Perhaps the scenes in the classrooms and the HDB flat were also stirring subconscious memories of his early years at Chatsworth pre-school in Yio Chu Kang and growing up in Serangoon Garden and Depot Road.

It wasn't long before Sean was totally engrossed. He laughed out loud when Ah Boy's dad inadvertently walked by Terry in his Fruit-of-the-Loom briefs, and then covered himself with the newspaper.

His grin got even bigger when the maid had to bathe the boy because his arm was in a cast. Sean broke his arm skiing in February and suffered a similar embarrassing fate, having his mother put a plastic trash bag on his cast while she took to bathing him again for the first time since he was a child.

As for myself, the movie brought back too many memories to list. Suffice it to say, several people turned to look at me when I let out an audible gasp as I realised the woman playing a hair salon owner in Lucky Plaza was an old fellow DJ friend from Heart 91.3, Pamela Wildheart.

The Cleveland audience was also quick to warm to Ilo Ilo, obviously finding a lot to relate to in a Singaporean family's financial crisis, the boy trying to coax a man sweeping walkways to buy him a 4D lottery ticket, the maid moonlighting to make more money, and the father sneaking smokes in the hallway. After all, while the setting might be foreign, people have the same hopes and dreams everywhere.

The Clevelanders laughed often, not at the Singaporeans depicted but with them, although no doubt they wondered when they heard me laughing at scenes only someone who called Singapore home for more than 20 years - and still does - could understand.

But when the credits rolled, everyone gave Ilo Ilo the best reward a film festival movie can get - an enthusiastic round of applause.

This story was originally published in The Straits Times on April 7, 2014.

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