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New Release Review - Ilo Ilo

A struggling Singapore family hire a Filipina maid.

Directed by: Anthony Chen
Starring: Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Tian Wen Chen, Yeo Yann Yann




Singapore, 1997. The country is in the midst of a financial crisis. Expectant mother Hwee Leng (Yann Yann) works as a secretary, spending most of her working hours typing redundancy notices. Her husband, Teck (Tianwen), has lost his sales job and, unbeknownst to his wife, is working as a warehouse security guard. The couple's son, Jiale (Jia Ler), has taken the recent death of his beloved grandfather badly and has become disruptive at school. To relieve the stress, Hwee Leng hires Terry (Bayani), a maid from the Philippines, who has left her own young son at home out of financial necessity.
At first, Anthony Chen's feature debut has all the trappings of a cliched domestic drama: troubled child, hen-pecked husband, domineering mother and kindly maid. Soon, however, it becomes clear Chen has made a highly original drama, one packed with wit and human insight.
Setting his story during the Asian financial crisis of the nineties adds a layer of resonance for contemporary Western audiences, most of whom can identify with the trials and tribulations of the film's central family. The same story could easily be told with a Western European family and an Eastern European maid, or a North American family with a maid from Latin America.
More so than love, to which great archives of art have been dedicated, money is the dominant factor in how we live and function today, yet the subject is rarely addressed, at least in a convincing manner, in cinema. Chen examines the subjectivity of poverty by contrasting his middle class Singapore family with their Filipina maid. Teck is ashamed of his warehouse job, keeping it a secret from his family. He's blown his savings on dodgy stocks, something else his wife is unaware of. Desperate for a way out of her current office job, Hwee Leng has been suckered into a get rich quick scheme. No wonder then that their son is obsessed with the State Lottery, keeping a scrapbook filled with an archive of previous winning numbers. Terry, in contrast, isn't looking for an easy way out, she's simply prepared to work hard, secretly taking a job as a hairdresser on her few precious days off. Through her lens, Singapore is a land of opportunity, a place where money can be made if you're willing to work for it.
When we first meet Jiale he seems nothing more than a spoilt brat who needs a good clip around the ears. It's testament then to Chen's script and direction that by the time we later see the child disciplined through an act of corporal punishment, it's no longer something we feel he deserves, though Jiale hasn't changed all that much. Chen isn't interested in sending his characters on a journey, he'd rather send his audience on one, and in this he succeeds.
Firmly shaking off the stigma of genre cinema for international audiences, Asian drama seems to be in something of a golden age, and Chen is a name to watch.
8/10


Eric Hillis

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