Starring: Angeli Bayani, Koh Jia Ler, Yeo Yann Yann, Chen Tian Wen
The Asian economic struggles of the late 90s form an intriguing backdrop to Anthony Chen’s intense, clever study of a typical middle-class Singaporean family, and the effect their new maid has on their lives. Filipino Terry, a meek yet resilient Angeli Bayani, moves in with the stressed, aspirational and fractured Lim family, and immediately struggles to form a bond with her primary charge, young son Jiale (the excellent debutant Koh Jia Ler). The financial tumults of 1997 are a lingering presence from the off, as we see a heavily pregnant Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) type redundancy letters in her admin job, and a despairing Teck (Chen Tian Wen) come up with increasingly desperate ways in which to keep his family afloat.
What is most striking about the Lims is their relative lack of wealth; true, Mrs Lim may not have much time to make Jiale’s favourite fish soup, or finish the washing, but together with the family’s tiny flat (Terry is forced to share a bedroom with a mutinous Jiale) and clapped-out car, the signs of money troubles are there from the off. The hiring of a maid seems less than prudent, but Ilo Ilo’s world is one of keeping up with the Joneses, whatever the consequences. Everyone is an outsider, and Jiale’s disruptive behaviour at school epitomises this; both colleagues and classmates turn into enemies as the crisis takes it toll. Deviation from a scripted path of success cannot be countenanced, so it’s no wonder that Jiale walks a fine line between education and expulsion every day, whilst his parents endure a bickering, bitter marriage. What Terry adds to the mix is a fresh set of eyes, an opinion fashioned by its own set of problems. Whether she hails from the Ilo Ilo Filipino region of the title is never explicitly stated, but her guilt at leaving her family back home is; more than anything, it is this that changes the relationship between Terry and her new son-by-proxy.
Inevitably, Hwee Leng’s jealousy is cranked up as her son and his maid become ever closer. Chen, who also wrote the script, delivers a brilliantly subtle study on maternal envy in his feature film debut, offering us some wonderfully pointed scenes where what matters most to Hwee Leng is being driven away from her, literally in one case. From the start, Ilo Ilo draws you in, with its extreme close ups, fast cuts, and decidedly domestic outlook. The claustrophobia of a family on the edge is infectious, and it’s hard not to feel for Terry as she has to somehow fit herself into all this.
The bewildering hurly-burly of Singaporean life is brilliantly shown on screen, with the characters speaking an effervescent mix of English, Mandarin, Malay (presumably) and Singlish, the dialogue tripping over the subtitles in its effort to be understood. Overall, Ilo Ilo doesn’t have a plot as such, but it does leave you with the sense that highly pressurised, aspirational lives do not equate to happiness, and that blood may be thicker than water, but it is often more annoying. That Ilo Ilo does this without ramming any anti-capitalist tracts down our collective throat is testament to its subtle, considerate and ponderous nature. Despite a few odd, almost smoke-screen shots that add little to the narrative, and an ending that rather ebbs out, Ilo Ilo is an engaging, thoughtful and concentrated film very much in the Ken Loach and Mike Leigh mould. Most exciting of all, director and writer Chen is only 30 and possessed, it seems, with much to say. To hear an Asian voice, and an Asian perspective, is refreshing and different, and where Chen goes next will be eagerly awaited by all fans of global cinema.