Even IMDb doesn’t quite understand what ILO ILO means. The winner of Camera d’Or of Cannes Film Festival 2013, ILO ILO is a Singaporean drama by debut director Anthony Chen that centers on a family living under the '90s economic crisis that hit most Asian countries. But, more than that, ILO ILO also talks about immigrant worker and how she’s involved in the dilemma of child-parent relationship. Its honesty in reenacting the situation is the key power that successfully brings ILO ILO to major critics acclaim all over the world.
This is a drama about troubled son and busy parents, and a submissive housemaid who eventually finds her way to fill the gap. Jiale (Jiale Koh) is the only son of Teck (Tian Wen Chen) and Hwee Leng (Yann Yann Yeo). Teck and Leng are working parents, so to look after their naughty son at home, they hire Terry (Angeli Bayani), an immigrant housemaid from the Philippines. The economic condition at the time was really bad, and it made Teck and Leng (pregnant) work all day and night, leaving the troublesome Jiale with Terry.
Jiale and Terry's relationship wasn't good at the beginning. Jiale didn't like Terry. He tried to bully her with his childish but annoying ways. But after a car accident, Jiale started to understand Terry. The two become close, while at the same time Leng feels envy to Terry—who got surprisingly closer than her as a mom. Terry, as an immigrant worker with a totally different cultural background, suddenly becomes a 'soft target' by Leng to accusations or uneasiness just to avoid her being together with his son.
Everything starts from Terry, giving a clue that ILO ILO is only a story about immigrant worker—culture crash and all—so it’s not really a fault if you think that ILO ILO is a one-topic-centered film (like I did). I was guessing this is a drama about a housemaid taking the charge of parenthood while the parents themselves are busy financially supporting the family. But, like a crossing path, Anthony Chen cleverly merged it with a bigger topic (the economic crisis topic) that suddenly neutralizes all verdicts concerning ‘this character is the antagonist and this character is the protagonist’ stuff.
The film depicts very smartly about how people lost hopes because of the crisis. People tried to search for help anywhere. People bought lotteries, trying to get some easy money. People attended motivation class, that actually didn't really help. People spent their little time to get extra cash by working extra. These situations are complex, somewhat comprehensive, but also true, unbiased, and brought so naturally by Anthony Chen. But he doesn't bother to be burdened by these overwhelming conflicts. Say he's a painter, then in this case he simply utilized these conflicts as a canvas instead of brushes and color paints to paint his picture. The brushes and colors, of course, is the characters.
We, with the film's medium-to-slow pace (which some viewers aren't really fond of), are instructed to learn and delve into the characters. We have character development to be patiently studied. We are told that these characters have their own interests; they represent their functions in a very humane point of view so we can take ourselves out of any judgments. The result is a film that flows very naturally and close to reality. Of course, the loudest applause is delivered to the cast. None of the four main characters give wrong depiction of being natural. Their acting are the true definition of being natural in acting.
More than that, ILO ILO becomes any spicier with culture. Singapore is a tiny version of America, it has lots of different people from different cultural backgrounds; there are Chinese people, Indian, or even Malay (and also Filipino). Many rages are living together in this small country. And culture crash, of course, is a common discussion. Anthony Chen puts this situation in a considerable amount so we are given enough perspective to slowly absorb and finally understand the atmosphere.
That is not enough. To make it richer, emotions are taken into account. Again, Anthony Chen was brilliant to maximize small moments in order to grab our attention. Mostly, it is seen from how Jiale and Terry starts to build chemistry to each other. How they started their introduction with hatred and how they ended up being good friends (with some “you stupid boy”, “it’s not that i’m smart; you’re stupid” kind of jokes), sometimes it feels like a hit-and-miss (because our concerns have been paid to the bigger issues instead of these details) but it's alright.
ILO ILO departs from a narrow topic to talk a broader topic. It is based on a very simple premise, but Anthony Chen with careful hands tie every situation and information into a nice package of family drama. With humble camera works and tones, ILO ILO is digestible, heartfelt, and real. A nice one.
2013 / Drama / 99 min / rating n.a.
Yann Yann Yeo, Tian Wen Chen,
Angeli Bayani, Jialer Koh
written & directed by Anthony Chen