Singapore, late 90s. The friendship between the maid Teresa and young boy Jiale ignite the mother’s jealousy, while the Asian recession hits the region.
From Director Anthony Chen is his award-winning debut feature film titled, ‘Ilo Ilo‘, an engaging and honest drama about a Singaporean family, and their struggle in the financial crisis of the late 1990’s. It’s initially a highly relatable story, not one obviously set to the financial crisis either. A fairly standard portrait of a middle-class family; both parents work, the kid is extremely difficult to ‘manage’, and extra help is hired to try to spread the burden in the form of a Filipino maid.
The dynamic is nothing out of the ordinary at first, in fact it is this ordinary existence that makes for such intriguing viewing. Meanwhile, as the impending financial crisis creeps in and begins to take those around them, they attempt to remain ordinary, but cracks begin to show as they become stretched financially and emotionally.
It is an easy film to invest in; the small cast and devotion to the character development result in a believable authenticity of this family. Jiale is the annoying only child who acts up continuously – his attitude stinks, and you question if there is more to his misbehaviour. The mother, who seems to be at the end of her tether, is pregnant and working full-time also – has she bitten off more than she can chew with what is potentially another version of Jiale due shortly? Possibly, hence why the Filipino maid is hired, who seems sweet, well-intentioned and hardworking. Although, her intentions however good they may seem, appear to be having a mixed effect on the family as a whole. Finally, the father, the stereotypical depiction of a stressed and underachieving salesman who struggles to confront what lies ahead, drifts from scene to scene, with the hope slowly draining from his face.
With no score to the movie but one song at the end, all we have to focus on are the stories for each of the endearing characters, and how they play out when brought together. These emotive and ultimately sad performances coupled with that of the central themes consisting of money and family, strike a relatable chord the likes of which you rarely find in movies in this genre.
Usually drowned in melodrama and over the top hysterics, replacing realism with nonsense and mistaking soap opera type events for substance – Ilo Ilo is the opposite. Subtly funny, genuinely heartwarming, but above all else it is very naturalistic. It is pretty remarkable how such a simple, intimate portrayal of a family going about their every day tasks can create such powerful viewing experience.
Ilo Ilo, is a beautifully told tale rooted deep in realism. Its cinematography, direction, the script, and the actions of our central characters effortlessly blend together bound by its simplicity. As the child longs for attention, the maid desires a practical future, the mother searches for stability and the father just needs to get one win in life – you watch in hope that someone gets what they want.
While it is centred on the intriguing tale of Jiale and the maid, Teresa, it is the fact that effort has been put in to establish a depth to each character regardless of screen-time that strengthens the films enjoyment. They are opened up and on display for us to see in a raw and genuine story, and a stark reminder that when used right, quite often less is definitely more.