Review: Ilo Ilo

Ilo Ilo tells the story of a Singaporean family and how they are affected when they hire a live-in Filipino maid to help manage the household, one where the parents who both work long hours cannot always dedicate the amount of time required. As events progress the members of the family drift apart from one another, but in different ways grow closer to Teresa (Angeli Bayani).

If one is to purchase this film through Film Movement you get the benefit of a statement from the distributor and the director on the inside cover of the DVD case. What this underscored to me is something I took as a given due to my being a dual citizen of the US and Brazil. That fact that director Anthony Chen points out is the hiring of a maid when he was growing up in Singapore was not a “bourgeoisie luxury” but rather a necessity, and this is true in many countries as maid/nanny become a combined role and a necessity where two jobs and longer hours are required just to make ends meet.

The home-based tale has an autobiographical slant throughout and one way in which this apparent is the film is a subtle period piece. In a trend that is evermore repeating; films set in the recent past don’t blare as such with loud titles but rather with small clues like events in the news, pay phones, calling cards and Tomagotchis. When this soft approach to instilling a sense of time an place matches the overall movement of the film it’s an even finer choice than it already is in a vacuum.

The film’s narrative progression is one that is as gentle as its insinuation of its setting. There is a vignette approach to the story-telling in terms of scene constructions, but that is not to say the film is structurally loose. There is a naturalistic progression of events. And although, even in a dramatic context, there’s not a lot of mystery to the film and the conclusion may be somewhat foregone, you do end up invested in these characters such that even though it doesn’t try to actively pull at you, you care what becomes of them, and in the end how they feel with regards to most things.

As with almost any foreign film there are some similar very general themes you run into: for example, it is a window into another culture, there are specifics to the culture that come to light (like the perception of someone who speaks only English) and things that are universal; financial duress, immigration, culture clash and the like. It’s seeing similar themes refracted through another culture that makes the treatment of these themes both unique and universal. I’d admit to more than my share of ignorance about Singapore prior to this film. It caused me to search a bit more based one what I saw here.

What this film had me thinking of after it was done was Hitchcock’s analogy about cake. He said some films are slices of life, he liked to make slices of cake. What Ilo Ilo struck me as was the best of both. Yes, for the most part the film is scenes of everyday life and how these characters can or can’t cope with changes in that, how they try and force some changes, how they struggle to relate. However, its all centered on a fulcrum and structured around the introduction of this new presence in the family.

Film acting is about subtleties and about how one carries themselves and embodies a role moreso than it is about dialogue. Whereas theatre is an actors’ medium. film is a medium wherein an actor completes the picture and Ilo Ilo succeeds because it has the right actors filling in the blanks. Whether its the very hard shell hiding a scared, loving mother conveyed by Yann Yann Yeo; or the stressed, burden-carrying quiet reasoned concern of Tian Wen Chen; the quiet caring of Angeli Bayani; or the impulsive, often angry, frequently impulsive and infuriating good-at-the-core Jiale played by Jialer Koh; all the pieces are in the right place.

Ilo Ilo ultimately moves deftly itself and moves you in much the same way. It’s unsentimentally touching and balances perspectives such that it’s really about the newly created family unit as opposed to one member therein. Its insights and commentaries are specific and universal. An enjoyable all-around viewing experience.