Ilo Ilo (2013)

Director:  Anthony Chen
Cast:  Koh Jia LerAngeli Bayani, Yeo Yann Yann, Chen Tian Wen 
Plot:  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.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Camera d'Or (Cannes).
Runtime:  99min
Rating:  PG13 for brief coarse language.

Ilo Ilo resonated with me in many ways.  Like writer-director Anthony Chen, growing up in the late 1990s in Singapore was special for me.  It was a time when I was young and free.  It was a time when I had lofty ambitions of becoming a doctor, driving my dream Porsche 928, and finding a pretty wife who can cook. 

I lived in a five-room flat in Serangoon, saw my rebel of a classmate being caned in public during assembly period, and I would 'da pao' (meaning: take-away) famous roast pork rice home for lunch after school.  Only that I didn't grow up with a maid.  Now that would have made it complete, wouldn't it?

Still, I had cousins and friends who had maids to care for them.  I always found maids fascinating – they leave their country for work overseas, sharing a house with complete strangers.  After many years, the house becomes a home, and strangers become family. 

This is how Jia Le, the young protagonist, feels as he becomes more emotionally attached to his maid after some initial hostility.  His parents struggle to make ends meet as they await the birth of their second child.  The 1997 Asian financial crisis hits and people are desperate to make a quick buck.  The future is bleak, though there is always a glimmer of hope in 4-D, the national lottery.

Chen's astute depiction of the life of a young boy living in the late 1990s is both nostalgic and a longing return to the imperfect past.  His direction of the film remains nuanced and hopeful.  There is no clear cut answer to life's problems, yet the very notion of these characters existing in that time and space (physically and architecturally in the form of the Singapore 'New Town') suggest that everyone will pull through together as a community and prosper at the dawn of the new millennium. 

In some way, the Singapore success story is implicitly essentialized in Ilo Ilo.  The performances are spot-on and the pacing of the movie is excellent throughout.  I suspect Chen's work here will appeal more to the common folk than Boo Junfeng's Sandcastle (2010).

Film enthusiasts will also revel in this finely-crafted drama, finally a local feature that is quite rightly the most accomplished in a long while.  There is never a false note, and Chen's confident grasp of his material allows Ilo Ilo to be funny, endearing and accessible at the same time.  It really deserves to make a splash at the box-office.

Verdict:  Resonating, emotionally potent and an astute depiction of growing up in Singapore in the late 1990s, Chen's work will please both film enthusiasts and the common folk.


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