Film Review: Ilo Ilo (2013)


For those of you who are wondering if the maid in Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo is one who needs to climb windows to hang clothes or face abuses like hot iron, this maid is not what you are thinking. Teresa, or Terry, as she would like to be called knows her rights. She is not here to be bullied, she dares to wear a nice dress out even when doing her job, she can drive a car and she knows how to make that smacking sound with her lips when she puts on lipstick. Terry, the maid with some guts, sets the tone for what is a bittersweet film that does not attempt to milk tears but rather bring an honest and rather humorous slice of the Singapore psyche to your consciousness.

Jia Ler, a 10-year old boy with a serious bout of ADD, lives under the rather loose grip of Leng, a work-weary mother and Mr Lim, a father lost in the lower rungs of a blue-collar jungle. His uncontrollable mischief prompts his family to hire a maid to take care of things at home. Arrives Terry, from the Philippines, who is tasked to set things straight at home. But Jia Ler does not warm up to Terry and decides to lay out some nasty traps for her. Terry, who needs to play the ‘prefect’ has a hard time taming the beast in Jia Ler who is gravitating between mischief and malice. However, there also exists a subtler, but more unsettling tension between Terry and her employer, Jia Ler’s mother. She kept Terry’s passport the first day she arrived at the household.

The story advances quickly into a major turning point early in the film. Jia Ler’s reckless self becomes his undoing when he ends up in a cast and his need for help in the shower breaks the ice between Terry and himself. In the awkwardness of both characters being stuck in the shower, Anthony, the director skilfully manoeuvres the situation from one of silent tension to one that is suddenly warm and fuzzy, and adds in a dash of adult humour as well. What is apparent by now is that this film is rigorous in its realist approach to telling the story, from the straight-talking characters who sometimes matter-of-factly sprout social taboos to the intimate handheld camera work. The director’s confident sense of humour, which surfaces in bouts of situational comedy throughout the film also lends a worldly-wise and mature view of what are inherently serious issues that the characters face. In short, the film eschews the melodramatic and the indulgent for the sweetly-sardonic, pardon the oxymoron. 

Several scenes stand out for epitomising this. Leng’s cruel act of keeping Terry’s passport upon arrival is immediately punctuated with the comedy in her taking down Terry’s passport number for a chance at the lottery. The father’s desperate attempt to sell durable, tempered glass is shattered by a prospect who outwits him by a more extreme form of ‘stress-testing’. Jia Ler’s joy at receiving the chicks as a birthday present is immediately interjected with a shot of his mother biting off a chunk of meat from a KFC drumstick. 

‘Discipline’, Jia Ler’s school principal (an excellent cameo by stage actress Jo Kukathas) utters as she opens the school assembly in one of the most memorable scenes in the film. And she says it fervently. It is with the same degree of discipline that Anthony commits to telling his story, seldom detracting or indulging. The flow of the Ilo Ilo narrative is watertight. Every scene is necessitated by either a revealing of a facet to a character or the planting of a narrative lever which surfaces later in the movie to considerable consequences. One of the achievements in the writing is how Anthony has managed to connect the dots in a seamless way. Cigarettes, a habit Mr Lim finds hard to break, through a series of events, surface later to worsen the relationship between Terry and Leng. An ill-fated encounter with motivational course brings Leng to her lowest point and but finds her a turning point in her family life. 

This ‘discipline’ is sometimes a double-edged sword. There were moments when the movie tended to be too deliberate. Mr Lim’s disposal of a Tamagotchi (signature toy of the 90s, and translates to a vulgar phrase involving the word ‘chicken’) finds continuation in a chicken-motifed thread in the later parts of the film, which is feels both contrived and endearing at the same time. An even more deliberate motif is Jia Ler’s 4D number obsession which seems weakly connected to the plot, though it helps stir up some situational comedy. Nevertheless, it did very little to harm a story and a group of characters who outlive the boundaries of the film. 

Ilo Ilo the movie is set during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Given the economic slowdown driven from a more recent financial crisis in 2008, the rationale for a ‘period’ setting of the movie seems weaker for what the characters experience in the story are not too distinct from the everyday bread and butter issues and struggles that surface today. In fact, domestic worker-employer issues continue to exist and have taken on a new face (a case in point: maid carrying army’s boy’s field-pack). But of course, the semi-autobiographical nature of the story justifies the ‘backdating’ of this class struggle film. More interesting is how the film actually bears current-day relevance, mirroring an overriding sense of slavery that engulfs our lives today – slavery to deadlines, KPIs, efficiency, social expectations, class, system and money. Amidst all the salient expositions of a country that runs like clockwork, referencing corporate culture, stock markets, motivational seminars, the scene that stood out, encapsulating the ethos of an order-obsessed society, was none other than ‘Discipline’ - the chapter of the school assembly. The scene opens to an ordinary recital of the Singapore pledge by the students. The air then turns cold when two students bring out a table and place it right in the middle of the stage. ‘Discipline’ the principal continues ‘is an integral part of our society and knowledge is of no value without discipline’. Out comes the disciplinarian with a cane. Anthony makes his point, clearly and chillingly. 
In so many other aspects, the film is a remarkable achievement. While directing is a given, immediate mentions must go to the flawless acting of the cast and the conscientious art direction. Yeo Yann Yann, who plays Leng anchors the film with her nuanced portrayal of a complex mum. Angeli Bayani perfects the role of the domestic worker from temperament to accent. Chen Tianwen, who plays the father, shows us what Mediacorp actors can do outside the restraints of TV-acting and under astute direction. Last but not least, Koh Jia Ler, who plays Jia Ler, redefines on-screen ‘honesty’. While the look of the film is not elaborate, the accuracy of the period look reveals the immense efforts of the art department. When the curtains come down, one might still wonder how many vintage IBM computers were laboriously lugged onto the set. 

Finally, one achievement not everyone may notice is the lack of music in the film. The film survives on the sensitive interplay of narrative pacing and sound design. Generally in film, music can be additive or reductive. For all the tension that hangs in the film, it denied the audience of a musical payoff throughout the film. But shrewdly, the payoff was timed at the very end with the revelation of an earlier-referenced song, and when it played, just like every thoughtful point in the film, every note counts. 

- Jeremy Sing
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