Ilo Ilo's win will spur others

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 25, 2013 

All Singapore director Anthony Chen wanted to do at the Golden Horse Awards was to shake hands with his "idol", Taiwan-born Oscar-winning film-maker Lee Ang.

Not only did he get his wish, Lee also presented him the ceremony's top prize for Best Feature Film for his debut feature Ilo Ilo.

The night ended with Chen, 29, having an intimate chat with Lee, 59, over a hotpot dinner.

Lee had stopped by at the after-party organised by the Ilo Ilo team at a hotpot restaurant in Taipei following the awards show last Saturday night. He stayed for about an hour to eat and chat with the Singapore director and cast.

Over the telephone from Taipei yesterday afternoon, Chen says that the acclaimed director of Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Life Of Pi (2012) gave him some solid words of advice.

He says: "Lee Ang told me that now that I have started so high up, it's going to be a really, really tough act to follow up on, and that I really need to be careful about how I continue on this path.

"There really is a huge immense pressure for me now. I'm not sure how I am going to move on from here."

Indeed, there will be a lot of expectations riding on Chen now that he is a Golden Horse winner, as the prestigious prize is considered the Oscars of Chinese-language cinema.

The Best Feature Film award is just one of four awards that Ilo Ilo bagged at the show.

The others are for Chen for Best New Director and Best Original Screenplay, as well as for actress Yeo Yann Yann for Best Supporting Actress.

The film was up for another two awards - child actor Koh Jia Ler, 12, for Best New Performer and veteran actor Chen Tianwen, 50, for Best Supporting Actor.

They lost, however, to Taiwanese actress Kuo Shu-yau, 23, for Step Back To Glory, and to Li Xuejian, 59, for historical epic Back To 1942.

While the Best New Director and Best Supporting Actress awards were largely expected, the wins for Best Original Screenplay and especially Best Feature Film, came as big surprises.

In the category for Best Feature Film, Ilo Ilo had been up against four major works made by heavyweight directors: Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster, Jia Zhangke's A Touch Of Sin, Tsai Ming- liang's Stray Dogs, and Johnnie To's Drug Wars.

In interviews with the Taiwan media following the awards, director Lee, who chaired the Golden Horse jury this year, revealed that he had actually pushed for Tsai's Stray Dogs during the voting process.

He said: "I really pushed for Stray Dogs but then, there was no one who disliked Ilo Ilo. It is fresh and unaffected, very pure, and I admire the new director's technique. The movie had very few problems."

Perhaps conscious of how the Taiwanese film industry may feel left out in the cold, he said he had asked jury members after a screening of Ilo Ilo: "Dare you vote for it?"

The jury also includes Chinese actress Li Bingbing and Taiwan host Kevin Tsai.

Timing-wise, Chen could not have picked a better year to win, given that this was the 50th edition of the awards and was thus held with extra fanfare.

When he was handed the Best Feature Film award from Lee and co-presenter Hou Hsiao-hsien, seated on stage behind them were 40 former Best Actor and Actress winners for the Golden Horse, spanning decades of Chinese cinema, from veterans Sun Yueh, 83, and Kuei Ya-lei, 69, to recent winners Lau Ching Wan, 49, and Gwei Lun-mei, 29.

Chen describes the entire night as "a very surreal evening".

He adds: "I am just so glad that we came in without any expectations and now we're bringing back not just one but quite a few for Singapore."

Chen is the third Singaporean to win at the Golden Horse ceremony, following composer Ricky Ho for Best Original Score in 2011 for Warriors Of The Rainbow: Seediq Bale, and actress Megan Zheng for Best New Performer in Jack Neo's Homerun in 2003.

Chen adds: "In a way, winning these Golden Horse awards represents an amazing moment because it's turning a real new chapter for Singapore cinema. I hope this will encourage more young film-makers to pursue their dreams and hopefully, if they continue this, we will have a wonderful new wave of Singapore cinema."

As for himself, he is "not sure yet" about the specifics for his next project but he admits to feeling the pressure.

"The whole world will be watching what I'm doing next and it just means that I'll have to work really, really hard. I really don't know what my next project is yet but my sense is that I hope to challenge myself with making an English- language film with Western actors.

"I don't know, it'll be interesting to find out. But I think I need time to sort out my emotions. It's been a ride since Cannes."

Ilo Ilo, a drama about a Singaporean family whose lives are changed when a foreign domestic worker comes to live with them, has been on an award- winning streak since it nabbed the Camera d'Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival in May this year.

With the Golden Horse wins in the bag, the movie now has a total haul of 20 awards.

Ilo Ilo is also Singapore's official submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film next year. The Oscars shortlist will be announced in January.

As for Best Supporting Actress winner Yeo, she is still finding her win "unbelievable".

The 36-year-old tells Life! over the telephone: "The Golden Horse represents childhood dreams for me. The show is something that we watched since we were kids and since young, it's like something that feels out of this world. I certainly never thought it would ever come near to my world.

"But now, it's here and I actually own one of the little Golden Horses. I'm still on cloud nine today and drifting around, unsure whether it's all real or not. But I guess it must be real because I read the newspapers this morning."

Back home in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sent a congratulatory message for Chen and his cast via Facebook: "Heartiest congrats to Anthony, Yann Yann and the cast and crew of Ilo Ilo for winning four Golden Horse awards last night. Singapore celebrates your impressive achievements. I hope this success will spur you and our other local film-makers to continue telling great stories."

Likewise, film industry players are joyous about Ilo Ilo's record win at the Golden Horse.

Film-maker Eric Khoo, 48, says that the awards act as a boost for the local film industry.

He adds: "It will help Singapore get really noticed by the international film markets to continue to keep their eye on us.

"For younger film-makers here, it will also tell them that they have a real shot at making it big. As a small country, we have some really talented film-makers and I hope these awards will help put us on the world map again."

Film-maker Royston Tan, 37, says that the wins mark "a historical moment for Singapore" and that he is "breathless with joy".

But he also asks where the support for Chen had been prior to his many awards.

He says: "Of course, it's really wonderful that we're all congratulating him and doing the celebration thing now. But the amount of congratulations is far greater than the support he had before this all started. I've seen him struggle for the past three years making this film, until he almost wanted to give up and where was the support for him back then? What does that say about our society?"

At the local box office, Ilo Ilo, which opened in August, made $900,000 after 10 weeks of screenings. In comparison, box office king Jack Neo's Ah Boys To Men made $6.2 million after 13 weeks.

Ilo Ilo has had a second round of screenings since last Thursday and will play at selected Golden Village theatres until Wednesday. There is the possibility that additional screenings be added afterwards.

Director Boo Junfeng, 29, says of Ilo Ilo's Golden Horse for Best Feature Film: "Beating the masters of Chinese cinema was certainly a pleasant surprise. This is a fantastic milestone for Singapore."

Ilo Ilo is showing in selected Golden Village cinemas.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 25, 2013

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to