Anthony Chen's 'Ilo Ilo'
Anthony Chen's 'Ilo Ilo'

Ilo Ilo, Singapore's Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : Film Movement. International Sales Agent: Memento Film International

On the subject of family dynamics there are various components to consider. The conflicts or connections between the members of a household emerge from the role each person plays in relation to one another. Breadwinners, for example, exert a certain authority onto others because of their inherent responsibility to provide. In a different manner, homemakers, earn the group’s respect because they oversee the correct functioning of the essential daily chores.

While the same person might exercise these two roles, each one teaches a different set of skills to the quietly receptive children. This power play is modified when it involves a servant, someone whose input is part of a business transaction, but who is still allowed into the privacy of the family’s home. Debutant feature director Anthony Chen exhibits his version of these interactions with a singular Singaporean flavor in his touchingly bittersweet film Ilo Ilo.

Enjoying a middleclass lifestyle during the late 90s, preteen troublemaker Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) and his parents live in a comfortable high-rise condo in the financial hub of Singapore. Teck (Tian Wen Chen) , the father, works at a stressful sales job in a time where the Asian economy was shaky. The boy’s mother, Hwee Leng (Yann Yann Yeo), is a proud office worker who is pregnant with her second child and can’t seem to catch a break. Responsible for giving her headaches, Jiale is a disobedient kid who appears to be acting rebellious since his grandfather passed away. He gets into fights with his teachers and ignores his mother’s pleas to behave. In desperate need of some help, Hwee Leng hires 28-year-old Filipino maid Teresa (Angeli Bayani), who instantly senses Jiale’s hostility toward her.

Ilo Ilo

Fearful of how his wife might react, Teck suffers in silence by hiding the fact that he was a part of the numerous layoffs taking place all over the country as the economic crisis unfolded. In the meantime, Teresa or “Terry” as she likes to be called, becomes the victim of Jiale’s mischievous antics. Afraid of losing her job she is unable to express her discomfort to his parents. Ultimately, with his mother at the office all day, Jiale unwillingly accepts Terry’s help after breaking his arm.

Her patience and maternal instinct slowly win over the naughty kid. Being herself a mother apart from her son, caring for Jiale serves as a coping mechanism for Terry who feels like an outsider not only to the family, but also in the country. As the pair’s unlikely bond strengthens, Hwee Leng notices how important Terry has become for her son. Feeling replaced at home she becomes jealous of her loving maid, a situation that adds to the already existing distress. Eventually the financial uncertainty forces the family to make difficult decisions, which will sadly give Jiale another taste of heartbreak.

Delivered with remarkable chemistry by both Bayani and young Koh Jia Ler, their banter is humorously enchanting. They establish a relationship that transcends mere employer-employee status and is elevated to a genuine friendship. Terry’s duties are not limited to cooking and cleaning for him, but instead she takes it upon herself to truly care for the child. She gives him the love an attention his parents, being overly busy with work, have neglected to provide.

There is a profoundly moving quality to all four major performances in this character driven film. Their personal struggles come from trying to fulfill their specific roles in a world that is moving at such fast pace, it has forgotten to contemplate the simple joys of family. Unruly Jiale unconsciously refuses to get caught up in the system, thus he sincerely connects with Terry, who accepts him unconditionally even when he doesn’t live up to everyone’s expectations.

Through his superbly developed characters and nuanced storytelling, Chen successfully captures both the cultural pluralism of the Singaporean society and the preoccupations and wonders (Walkmans and Tamagotchis included), of a time which now seems strangely distant. Curiously enough, Ilo Ilo takes its name from Terry’s small hometown in the Philippines, and although he might never get to be there, through his friendship with Terry a part of Jiale will always live there. Pleasantly surprising Chen’s heartwarming debut is a subtly thoughtful and endearing work.

Ilo Ilo Opens in L.A. on April 11

Read more about all the 76 Best Foreign Language Film Submission for the 2014 Academy Awards