Singaporean director Anthony Chen's debut feature has been showered with the acclaim reserved by critics to that elusive first feature from an exotic origin, proof of the existence of cinematic life in some hitherto unexplored country, and not just cinematic life but the "right sort" of it: a hybrid of mainstream storytelling and auteurist approach that gets the best of both worlds. It's a description that can be unfair to the film itself - Ilo Ilo is undoubtedly not as calculated as that! - but the acclaim of this lovely but slight debut reflects not so much its intrinsic qualities as what others see in it and how it can fit an increasingly fragmented world cinema landscape.
Allegedly inspired by Mr. Chen's own memories of growing up in Singapore in the 1990s, Ilo Ilo is for all intents and purposes a period piece, set in 1998 on the brink of the Asian economic recession, with a middle-class household hiring a Filipino maid to take care of the house and pick up the young son while the parents are away at work. What Mr. Chen does really well is trace the broken web of relationships in the Lim family: for the overbearing mother Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann), an administrative assistant in a shipping company, social status is everything; the weak father, glass salesman Beng Teck (Chen Tianwen), has lost his zest for life and feels trapped in a hamster wheel; and grade school kid Jiale (Koh Ja Ler) has no steady hand nor role model to guide him, as the parents are always away at work, eventually holding on to his OCD study of prize lottery numbers and acting up at school to find the attention he doesn't get at home.
Into this broken family comes a broken woman of her own, Teresa (Angeli Bayani), who left her young son at home with her sister to earn money abroad. And despite being able to only communicate in broken English and being effectively treated as a second-class citizen and a virtual live-in slave by Hwee Leng (as, indeed, all other Filipino maids around), Teresa becomes the centre of the Lim household, the rock around which everyone revolves as the personal and financial issues come to a head: Beng Teck is fired and hides from his family that he's found a low-paying job as a security guard, Hwee Leng finds herself lured in by a motivational speaker, and Jiale gets into serious trouble at school.
Mr. Chen's film is at its best in the way he passes no judgement on people who are not necessarily pleasant or perfect, depicting human beings with all their frailties and strengths. But, just as his heroes are neither pleasant nor perfect (much helped by the nicely judged performances from the cast), neither is Ilo Ilo, its narrative somewhat predictable and derivative, its exploration of emotional redemption in a socioeconomical context neither entirely contrived nor entirely convincing, and without any particular personality in the handling and style. It's hardly a flaw to make a first feature that is good without being great, and Ilo Ilo is certainly an assured debut that reveals a director with evident talents; it's just that the film is too fragile and modest to be worthy of the praise lavished on it, which is by no means its fault.
BA MA BU ZAI JIA
Cast Yeo Yann Yann, Chen Tianwen, Angeli Bayani, Koh Ja Ler
Director and screenwriter Anthony Chen; cinematographer Benoît Soler (colour); art director Michael Wee; costumes Nelson Lee; editors Hoping Chen and Joanne Cheong; producers Ang Hwee Sim, mr. Chen and Wahyuni A. Hadi; production companies Singapore Film Commission, Ngee Ann Polytechnic and Fisheye Pictures
Screened July 31st 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 14 (distributor press screening)
ILO ILO - TRAILER from Memento Films International on Vimeo.