Film review: Ilo Ilo is a heartland tale from the heart

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 28, 2013

Review Drama


100 minutes/Opens tomorrow/ *****

The story: It is 1997. Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) is a mother who splits her attention between her work and her son (Koh Jia Ler), who is a magnet for trouble in school. Father Teck (Chen Tianwen) struggles in his job as a salesman. The couple hire Filipino domestic helper Terry (Angeli Bayani), in the hope that she will keep a clean home and supervise Jia Ler.

There were furrowed brows here when it was announced that this film won the Camera d'Or prize for Best Debut Feature in Cannes in May.

The topic of a family from a strata of society employing a foreign domestic worker from a lower strata is one fraught with the potential for cheap emotional manipulation.

Would this pander to liberal Western guilt? Did it win at Cannes because it played into a stereotype of the blood-sucking boss and the noble underling from a foreign land?

Those fears can be laid to rest. Writer-director Anthony Chen sees everything, judges nothing. Characters on both sides of the economic divide are humans, working through everyday problems.

Not least Auntie Terry (Filipino actress Angeli Bayani), a woman with a keen sense of self-preservation. She is no martyr and becomes adept at keeping secrets from her employers, both about her indiscretions and the pain she bears at being far from her own family in the Philippine province of the film's title.

Working mother Hwee Leng (Yeo) at first looks to be the villain of the piece because she is the person who puts herself in charge of Terry. But as the story unfolds, she is shown to be one keeping the family running as a cohesive unit. She plays the bad cop because she has to, not because she wants to.

Critics at early screenings have said that this work lacks narrative urgency, a charge which has some truth. There are no mysteries to solve, no sinners seeking redemption, no ambitions that need fulfilling.

The film's real payoffs are in its keenly observed moments. Auntie Terry not only serves as a catalyst for change within the family, but she is also the point of view from which the audience watches an average Singapore family in all its quirky glory.

Through her foreign eyes, our habits are shown to be the stuff of comedy - the dad who feels most comfortable at home in his underwear, our intense yet oddly functional relationship with food (especially chicken) and the significance of lucky numbers and cars.

All four of the lead actors, especially Yeo and Koh, deliver naturalistic performances of a standard that will set the benchmark for years to come.

A large chunk of the drama is played out in the family's HDB flat, but there is little of the video flatness and claustrophobia that audiences have come to fear with that setting.

French director of photography Benoit Soler shows that if heartland films make flats look like prisons, it is the film-maker's fault, not the Housing Board's.

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