0-2-3-8 Notes on Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo


(Note: Very mild spoilers in this post)

0 Terrible Things about Ilo Ilo

2 Easter Eggs for Anthony Chen Fans:

1. “0238” is a significant number to the plot of Ilo Ilo. Is it a coincidence that this number is a combination of the recurring number “23” from Chen’s short films G-23 (2004) and Hotel 66 (2009), and “0208” from Karang Guni (2012)?

2. The tropes of saving a chicken drumstick for the father and of filling out 4 digits for the lottery get a sly realist correction in Ilo Ilo, in contrast to the feel-good use of these respective tropes in Chen’s short films The Reunion Dinner (2011) and Karang Guni (2012).

3 Biggest Laughs in Ilo Ilo:

1. A mother passive-aggressively bites into a fried chicken drumstick, in unknowingly ironic response to something she sees

2. A school principal gives a straight-faced, laughably moralistic lecture about discipline

3. A kid appeases his discipline master with a secret discovery (my theater burst into applause at this moment!)

8 Great Things about Ilo Ilo

1. Auntie Terry: Many liberal Singaporean films make the mistake of portraying foreign workers as saints or martyrs. By contrast, Chen gives the Filipino domestic helper Terry (played by Angeli Bayani) a sense of humor, some minor failings, an unfaltering intelligence, and a quietly principled way of not (literally) telling mum even when she isn’t in the wrong. This generous showcasing of Terry in different moods reflects a strength of the movie in general, which never settles itself or its characters into a flatly sombre (or didactic) tone.

2. Jiale and Terry: Anthony Chen has mentioned how Ilo Ilo started life with the memory of his 12-year-old self crying at the airport when his maid left Singapore for good. Much of the movie unspools from this emotional core. The developing relationship between schoolboy Jiale (played by Koh Jia Ler) and Terry form the heart of Ilo Ilo, including two tender scenes in which Terry helps Jiale to shower. Instead of reducing such scenes into overly sentimental bonding episodes, Chen keeps them light and funny, with Terry and Jiale mischievously teasing each other. (Chen does not shy away either from showing how mean Jiale can be, and how much Terry must hold her own against him.) Scenes like these make Jiale’s eventual last-ditch attempt to keep Terry in Singapore all the more heartbreaking. A plot involving a kid desperate to remain with a mother figure (and keeping a lock of her hair) has not been this moving since Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001).

3. Child act: Koh Jia Ler joins a collection of kid/teen actors who prove Chen’s impressive ability to pull naturalistic performances out of them. For Ilo Ilo, Chen managed to convince Koh to be caned for real and to strip down entirely for his shower scenes. This adds to Jiale’s vulnerability and our empathy for him, even though by other accounts his character remains a stubborn, often hurtful rascal.

4. Dramatic restraint: In Ilo Ilo, Chen proves to have masterful restraint as a storyteller. Don’t take this to mean that the movie tests our patience with amateurish look-ma-I’m-arthouse long takes, although Chen has indulged in his share of silently sitting twosomes throughout his short film career. Rather, Chen rewards you for paying attention to the high roads that he and his characters are taking, instead of going for cheap and easy dramatics. For example, a side character entrusts her money to a protagonist in need of it, and the movie doesn’t give the slightest hint of the latter thinking about stealing it for herself. Twice, Jiale’s father reveals a secret he has been hiding from his wife, only to have her anger simmer down rather than flare up. In moments like this, Ilo Ilo offers us a sensitive portrait of how this family protects and compromises for each other, even while they are hurting.

5. Crying: When Ilo Ilo does admit itself some outright sadness, it still manages to display notable restraint, filming its crying characters from over their shoulders, in profile, or beneath facial masks.

6. The recession: The 1997 Asian financial crisis looms over all of Ilo Ilo, forming the reason for Terry’s entry into and departure from the lives of the movie’s central family. Most of the movie’s attention to Jiale’s parents revolve around their private attempts to deal with their job losses or financial worries. But Chen deftly manages to evoke the economic malaise of the period without exaggerating its impact on his movie’s middle-class family: just because Jiale’s father loses his job, it doesn’t mean that they automatically go broke. Instead, Chen savvily depicts how the parents struggle internally and selectively tighten their belts. (My only objection is that this leads to the movie’s most generic subplot, involving a charismatic speaker who comes off pretty uncharismatic.)

7. Period detail: Ilo Ilo is an astutely observed time capsule of Singaporean HDB life in the late 1990s, thanks to Chen’s characteristic attention to his films’ sets and props. Items featured in the film’s press include a painstakingly scouted HDB apartment (with the right window grilles), an entire office’s old PCs installed with Windows 95, and a salon-recreated perm for the mother. I thrilled to other details, such as a tea-brown Honda Accord with dashboard-mounted air freshener, and an old but familiar generic theme song on TV. If anything, Chen goes a bit too far drawing attention to his period specifics, with somewhat awkwardly scripted name-drops of Tamagotchi and IDD.

8. Little things: Ilo Ilo is sprinkled with many details that are plot- and period-irrelevant, but that add to its overall sense of truth: Jiale’s perenially half-naked father, especially when he is still unused to a newcomer to the house. Jiale’s mother using Terry’s passport numbers for the lottery. Crayon drawings on a character’s orthopedic cast, to depict the passing of time. Tacky Doraemon stickers on Jiale’s bedframe. A teacher watching Jiale being mean to Terry without eventually intervening.

Ilo Ilo is now in cinemas islandwide. Please support it!

Text by Colin Low
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