Director: Anthony Chen
Starring: Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Tian Wen Chen, Yann Yann Yeo
Written by: Anthony Chen
Running Time: 99 mins
Release date: 2nd May 2014
Sometimes simplicity makes a much louder noise than throwing everything you have at the screen. Take Ilo Ilo for example. A small-scale, simple tale of the relationship between a maid and a boy. Nothing could be simpler and yet this film speaks volumes without having to once try to impress us with anything flashy. It takes care and attention to detail to pull off something as magical as this.
Singapore, in the late 90’s, when the Asian financial crisis is at its peak. Jiale is a troubled young boy who has just lost his beloved grandfather and his behaviour is causing his mother, pregnant with a child, to start losing her mind. She hires a maid, Teresa, to run her house and to look after her son while she works. This relationship, at first, doesn’t seem to connect, with the boy treating Teresa with little or no respect whatsoever. As time passes, the pair soon find a bond that brings them closer and as things start getting tight within the family, jealousy starts to appear.
At first glance, this film seems to offer nothing more than a domestic drama but it holds so many treasures beneath. Writer, director Anthony Chen uses personal experiences to create a tale of family struggling with the situation in the world as well as their own inner problems. It is so richly observed without hammering the point home.
Using the relationship of the nanny with the disruptive child, you watch as it develops into a beautiful and trusting friendship, while at the same time, your cautious of the jealous mother as her son turns away from her towards the “intruder” to her home. At the same time and more of a sideline but equally important is the father, who tries his best to hide things from the dominating matriarch.
Every inch of this story is as poignant as the next and Chen draws out, in great details, each of the characters, even down to the teacher pulling his hair out every time Jiale appears in his office. Sometimes funny, sometimes shocking (a particular scene involving a chicken comes at you unexpectedly) but more over, incredibly touching and sweet.
The performances are superb. Young Koh Jia Ler is exceptionally good as the troublesome Jiale, and shows an incredible amount of maturity, matching step for step with his adult counterparts. The relationship between him and Angeli Bayani is particularly touching and is at the heart of this film.
By the time we reach the finale, we know enough about this family that it is even more hard-hitting and emotional than we could expect. Even though it’s incredibly downbeat, it has a sense of enormous satisfaction and you feel that the story is complete.
Ilo Ilo won’t receive as much attention as it duly deserves but it’s a film well worth tracking down. A human drama full of heart that doesn’t leave you feeling sick with forced emotions but one that stays with you long after it has finished. Like last year’s Wadjda, this is a film that sneaks up on you and captures you unexpectedly. Warm, funny, heartbreaking and utterly charming. A lovely, cinematic joy.