Director Anthony Chen won the Camera d’or at Cannes for Ilo Ilo, his first feature-length film based on a true story about his own childhood.
Director Anthony Chen won the Camera d’or at Cannes for Ilo Ilo, his first feature-length film based on his own childhood story.

Ilo Ilo is a multinational film that manages to bring its viewers back in time by reliving loss through ’90s nostalgia and a touch of realism. Also the name of a Philippines province, Iloilo is the home that Terry (Angeli Bayani) left to be outsourced as a maid in Singapore. At 29, the timid mother is forced to leave her baby boy with relatives in order to work.

Arriving at her new employers’ home, Terry is guarded. One of the first words of welcome she hears from the wife, Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann), is: “Terry, give me your passport.”

When husband Teck (Chen Tian Wen) asks his spouse why she confiscated Terry’s identification, Hwee answers indifferently: “In case she tries to run away.”

Then, nonchalantly, she plays the lottery using Terry’s passport numbers. Thus, begins the dehumanization of the family maid. Living an average middle-class life in Singapore, the Leng’s are still better off than the impoverished Terry, able to afford someone who will wash their floors and raise their 10-year-old son. But soon, they’re caught up in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, watching helplessly as their socio-economic standing begins to unravel and threatens to place them at the same level as their hired help.

As Terry goes about her grubby tasks, she realizes the son the parents call Ah Boy, but whom she addresses as Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), is a spoiled, selfish brat. Abusive both verbally and physically (by shoving her around), he gets away with such obnoxious behavior seemingly because his parents are too apathetic to discipline him. Indeed, they have their own narcissistic anxieties to divert them.

The pregnant and overworked Hwee is preoccupied with her stressful assignment of helping her boss lay off coworkers while her husband is on the other side of the spectrum, having lost his job but unable to tell her. All around, the signs of economical failure are apparent yet the Leng’s’ concerns are for themselves. A neighbor leaps from their apartment building, but Hwee is unmoved. Instead, she’s annoyed by the raucous mourners at his funeral.

Perhaps, the Leng’s are just too exhausted. Hwee is carrying a baby, Teck is carrying a burden, but Terry is also carrying her own troubles along with those of the family she cares for. Serene in her quiet rage, Terry demonstrates acute maturity even as she’s falsely accused of petty infractions or stripped of her identity. Even her religion is no longer her own. In one scene, the family visits Jaile’s grandfather’s grave, forcing Terry to join in their Buddhist prayers. Yet earlier, at their first meal together, when Terry crossed herself before eating, the family stared at her.

“Don’t worry,” Teck said then, patronizingly, “We don’t mind.”

At first, Jiale is incredulous about having to share his room with Terry. But as various tragedies befall him, he begins to accept her and the two start bonding. As Terry and Jiale inch towards friendship, their scenes become more intimate. When Jiale hurts himself, Terry washes him in the shower as he playfully splashes her. When she meets him after school to carry his backpack, he asks for one of her ear buds so they can share the music she’s listening to on her Walkman.

Along with details like the Walkman, there are constant reminders that the setting is the mid-1990s with Teck’s pager, the oversized computer monitors at Hwee’s office, and Jiale’s constant obsession with his Tamagochi. And, other than some beautifully shot scenes of the city skyline (such as a train gliding in the darkness), the camera stays trained on the actors lending them authenticity—like when Hwee wipes the toilet seat after Teck drips onto it. There’s also no accompanying music, which makes Ilo Ilo easily acceptable as reality.

The multinational cast features a Singaporean (Tian Wen), Malaysian (Yann Yann), and Filipina (Bayani); and, English subtitles are used for heavily accented English, some Mandarin and Tagalog.

Director Anthony Chen won the Camera d’or at Cannes for this, his first feature-length film. Based on a true story about his own childhood, 29 year-old Chen never forgot the surrogate mother their family maid was to him for 16 years. Amazingly, he searched for, located and reunited with the real-life Terry—in Iloilo.

Ilo Ilo opens April 11 at Landmark’s Varsity Theatre, 4329 University Way NE.

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