Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ilo Ilo (2013)

It may not be politically correct to say this, but the Philippines greatest export to the world may be human chattel. Although there are plenty of highly educated Filipinos who immigrate to foreign countries and build very successful careers for themselves, sadly the consensus around the world about the Philippines and its people are that they are an impoverished country whose populace migrate to other far more economically abundant places to work as unskilled labor. Be it the US, Europe, Australia, or Asia no matter how many Filipinos you may find working in hospitals, schools, or running their own businesses there will be just as many or even more Filipinos working as maids, nannies, janitors, farmhands, etc. etc. And because of this it has become easy for many to treat these people as less than human. In places like Hong Kong, stories abound about Filipinos being treated worse than the family dog by their employers, and in proudly democratic countries like the US, Filipino maids are often forced to be on-call 24/7 to their host family in the hopes that maybe one day in the distant future they can get the most coveted thing of all, an immigration visa.
In Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo (2013), a film inspired by Chen’s own childhood, the prickly dynamics between a Singaporean family and its somewhat naïve Filipino maid is explored in an honest and never cloying manner. Set during the early aftermath of the Asian financial crisis during the late 90s, Chen opens his film on a gauzy daytime silhouette of a boy with his arms wide open. This tranquil opening is disturbed by the sound of a violin-like screech and a door. We find ourselves in an office and that boy with his arms out wide is in trouble. That young boy, Jialer (Jialer Koh), will be a thorn in every adult’s side and the primary reason why the family brings in a maid.
His mother, a very pregnant Hwee Leng, played by Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann, works at a shipping company that is struggling to stay afloat amidst the economic turmoil. Trying to juggle a job that demands more and more of her time while at the same time trying to discipline a boy who refuses to follow common sense or good manners has eroded most of Hwee’s patience. And if that wasn’t enough her husband Teck (Chen Tianwen), echoing current portrayals of salarymen in Asian cinema, has been laid off from his job and barely keeping that lie from being revealed by working as a security guard at a warehouse.
Into this emotionally claustrophobic atmosphere steps Teresa (Angeli Bayani), a young Filipina woman who’s traveled to Singapore in hopes of making enough money to keep her young child that she left behind provided for.  It’s a typical first meeting. The mother, relieved to have some help is suspicious about this new member of the household and hides her jewelry in a locked cabinet. The father is awkwardly polite, but with other more pressing concerns leaves the job of acclimating Teresa to his wife. The young boy, Jialer, the hellraiser of the family, hates the new “aunt” that he must share a room with. Being the youngest in the family though means he is at the mercy of his parents and no matter how much he may hate her he is bound to her.
Chen creates an obvious dichotomy between Teresa and Hwee. One is the traditional mother figure ironically being paid to play the nurturing mother role and the other is the actual biological mother who is the breadwinner of the family but due to the overwhelming burden of being both mother and breadwinner she has lost a certain softness that is usually present in women with maternal instincts. In both cases though money plays a major role in defining these women’s relationship to Jialer, and although it might be easy to elevate one woman above the other, specifically in the case of Teresa, Ilo Ilo is not your standard family drama. There are no lessons to be learned.
If the film were a typical family drama the boy, Jialer, would have been forced to have a story that conformed to the classic Western three-act structure that Hollywood has hijacked. Meaning that by the end of the film, Jialer would have learned to be a “good” boy and his parent’s money problems would have been solved by the deus ex machine reveal that they had won the lottery thus preventing Teresa from losing her job and having to go back to the Philippines, a very happy but emotionally false note to close out on.
Chen builds to various points of conflict, but the film never devolves into melodrama though it does dip its toe into it. An obvious example in the film is the predicament that Teck, Jialer’s father, is in. Losing his job, scrambling to get a new one, and settling for a low-paying soul crushing position as a security guard are handled as mere story asides. The film doesn’t ignore or sugarcoat things for the audience; it just doesn’t linger on these very painful moments. Instead of having a cliché scene of Teck drinking at a bar or getting into a contrived fight with a coworker or bystander to illustrate the conflict within the character as he wrestles with himself as to when or if he should tell his wife we have scenes where he will drive around the shipping yard he works at with his wife in the car with him attempting to tell her the truth, but ending up literally and figuratively driving around in circles. And when the time does come for Teck to finally reveal things to his wife there is no big explosive fight scene. There isn’t even a reveal to begin with since the secret that Teck had held so closely to his chest was already something that Hwee figured out months before. By denying us these moments we must pay attention to the subtle character cues and story callbacks that are peppered throughout the film.
The only criticism one might find in the film is the character of Teresa, though not because of Angeli Bayani’s acting. Bayani is great in the role. You never see her trying to make us feel anything. In this film at least she seems to subscribe to the old acting adage that to be good at a job that requires someone to do a lot of pretending all you must do is to “learn your lines and say them with conviction” without a lot of mugging for the camera. What bothered me about her character though is that as realistic as the characters, setting, and story were, the character of Teresa still conformed to the tired clichés of the beatified good Filipino with the patience and virtue of a saint even as she suffers and is humiliated by various injustices. Chen’s characterization of Teresa might have been his way of honoring the real life maid that took care of him and his family when he was younger, but such simplistic characterization reduces Teresa into a cardboard cutout, maybe not a nonentity, but definitely less of a person and more of an idea.
As a debut feature, Ilo Ilo is a fine film. It premiered at Cannes in 2013 and won the Camera d’Or plus several awards at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival for its director and one of its cast. It gets so much right and though it stumbles a bit with its portrayal of the foreign other it may signal a new renaissance in Singaporean cinema, a country that has been bubbling with a lot of new talent for years now and is just waiting for the world to take notice.

(First Published in Issue #12 of The Post American, Winter 2015. Illustrations done by freelance artist Yuri Kim. You can reach her at either her website,, or by e-mail,

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