Who would have guessed that Singapore’s film of the moment, and possibly of this year, has its English title refer to a location outside of the little red dot, a city that was never even mentioned in the film. And this was also the case for its Chinese title, although the phrase was possibly the key reason why its youngest key character got up to his shenanigans for the most parts, reflecting a social norm for double income families in the city state, where kids are often left growing up under the watchful eyes of domestic workers instead.
We had to wait until some 7 years after Singapore Dreaming, before another powerful local family drama get to grace our screens, a genre few filmmakers dare touch, since it may be perceived that Singaporeans dislike holding that mirror up at ourselves, or that it’s easier to satire or poke fun at some social issues through comedy for the masses, which most of the lucrative local film releases here fall under. And here came writer-director Anthony Chen, already a trailblazing short film filmmaker, who showed his maturity as a storyteller, combining narrative eloquence with deft, effective techniques to tell a personal tale set against an historical background, much like a combination of his best known shorts Ah Ma, a Cannes Special Mention previously that centered around grieving family members, and Haze, which had the environmental hazard serve as the backdrop of a “Ba Ma Bu Zai Jia” situation.
To be honest I had some doubts when Ilo Ilo’s trailer premiered, thinking that we could be staring down Singapore Dreaming Part Deux given perceived similarities in cast and some subject matter, even as the film moved along, such as how lottery still found its way to the plot (as did most other local films to varying degrees), and an expectant mother character that actress Yeo Yann Yann plays, although this time it was for real with the actress pregnant, and had it worked into the plot by the filmmaker. And my suspicion that this could be Tokyo Sonata, with the father figure losing his job, and other very personal story arcs revolving around the other key characters, got blown away as soon as the film entered its initial minutes, that this was already something different, and groundbreaking in the making as far as local films are concerned.
As it turned out, this is Anthony’s labour of love, and the tremendous attention to detail was simply amazing, though not perfect (but what is?), with its art direction to immerse the viewer into knowing we’re in the mid 90s without the need for an obvious marker until mid way. Electronic devices such as the Tamagochi game which was quite the rage in its time, ubiquitous pagers, and Sony’s walkman all serve to remind us of a time where we got by without feeling the need to be online all the time. And from these little gadgets, come the darting of one’s eyes to a lot more clues of time, from costuming right down to wide angled shots where I just had to find something out of place, but rarely did (I admit I nodded when a wide shot of a school hall had the correct President and First Lady picture hung up, something which could have been easily overlooked, amongst other things such as the model used for a police car).
But it is economical filmmaking in a sense, yet big in ambition to tell a story that can, and has proven, to resonate with audiences around the world. Most of the scenes take place in family HDB apartment, or the school, and any other outdoor shots were meticulously scouted and could have made the Old Places team proud, especially when we’re modernizing our landscapes at a frightening pace. And the cinematography exploits tight spaces in lieu of avoiding getting something out of place into the frame, yet through its technical constraints came an intimate portrait through tight shots and intricate framing.
What I really liked about the film is how effortlessly the narrative flowed, without the director feeling the urge to be verbose about everything, preferring set ups to be resolved naturally at a later stage, with the film taking its time to evolve rather than pushing its pace to a rush, reining in any attempt to be overly ambitious in trying to cover everything, catalyzed from the introduction of a stranger into a family’s life. And on top of that, giving each character crafted their strong, personal story arcs whose challenges one can surely feel for since they touch raw nerves from an unforgettable 90s era.
The Singapore Dreaming connection cannot be stronger than with Yeo Yann Yann’s presence playing a pregnant mom in a family drama. One of the actresses at the top of her craft plying her trade on both sides of the Causeway, it is needless to say her sheer acting prowess shone through a role that required her to respond to threats, where her character had to witness the erosion of her bond with her son who slowly but surely begin to forge a stronger one with their family maid. And if that’s not challenging the actress enough, her role also deals with the albatross of retrenchment starkly happening in the local small and medium enterprise her motherly character works for, and finding belief through self-help materials.
I’ve never thought much about Chen Tianwen as an actor since his television days, but it’s a testament to the director’s ability to elicit the best performance possible from his cast, and it’s indeed a revelation that this actor could act, if given the right role, and having his ability coaxed right out of him. While the character had to disappear for a bit toward the last act, his Mr Lim stood for how the typical father would under dire circumstances, speaking little, and digging deep from within to weather the storm, picking up any job to tide through tough times. If you, like me before who is unconvinced by Chen Tianwen’s acting abilities, you’re in for a huge and pleasant surprise.
Fans of Lav Diaz’s films would be no stranger to Angeli Bayani, who plays Teresa/Terry the maid, and nailed her role through and through as the dutiful servant with a mind of her own, standing up for herself from the onset when bullied. Leaving her family and young son behind, the character echoes many of those under similar circumstances, having to come to our island to look after someone else’s kid instead, while at the same time bearing witness to the secrets each household owns. And rounding up the principle cast members is Koh Jia Ler as the young kid of the Lim family Jiale, a rascal of a kid, spoilt in a sense, and being the bane of Teresa at the start. Ilo Ilo has their story arcs central to everything else happening around them, and the chemistry between these two performers was one of the highlights of the movie, as we journey through their changes in attitudes that gave way to mutual respect, and love. Probably the child actor at the moment, having to co-shoulder the weight of the film on his shoulders as the unlikely antagonist who jump starts situations.
Ilo Ilo is a subtle, sensitive film, boiled down to a filmmaker’s maturity and strength in peppering plenty of life’s observations, combined with personal experiences, poured into a melting pot full of heart. Amongst the local film releases this year, this one is a refreshing change to the usual faces seen on screen, dealing with themes that will definitely strike a chord, which when stripped down, points to desires in enriching oneself for various reasons altruistic or otherwise, yet even more keenly felt during poor economic conditions, through methods that are hard and patient, or through short cuts that are illegal, fashioned after self-styled self-help gurus.
Anthony Chen has thrown the gauntlet down for local filmmakers to raise their own bars in filmmaking, leading the charge of the next generation of filmmakers who have their unique vision and stories to tell. It’s rare in our filmmaking community to find storytellers who straddle between art house and commercial films, but Ilo Ilo shows that a combination of both is possible. So while the film continues to make waves overseas, and prestigious, international awards aside, there’s nothing but true testament for any filmmaker, than for audiences in the home country to respond to the film in a show of support through a ticket. And it’s not blind promotion – Ilo Ilo is the best local film to hit our shores this year, and perhaps in recent years, that it deserves as wide an audience as it can get from Singapore. You’ll laugh, cry and will invariably be moved. A definite recommend!
P.S. it’s been playing for some time already in cinemas, and now it’s reduced to limited screenings, so catch it before it disappears from the big screens. This is one movie that has enough reserves in its tank to appeal to a broad spectrum of society, and I’m heartened to have noticed from my evening screening, families turning up in droves to lend support, and emerging satisfied with such a fine film when the lights get turned on.