Sydney Film Festival Review: Ilo Ilo (Singapore, 2014)

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It’s 1997 and the Asian Financial Crisis is in full swing. Companies are downsizing, people are feeling the pinch and the burden of providing for one’s family is high. It’s in this pressure-cooker environment that first-time Singaporean director Anthony Chen brings Ilo Ilo.

For many, Ilo Ilo is not just about class systems but also an eye-opening look into the cultural differences between Australia and Singapore, a country where hired help is not uncommon. Many Asians, particularly those from less prosperous countries like The Philippines, live and work outside their home country, often as domestic workers, to send money back to their families. This is the situation Teresa (Angeli Bayani) finds herself in. As a young Filipino woman, she travels to Singapore to work as the maid for Teck (Chen Tian Wen), his wife Hwee (Yeo Yann Yann) and their young son Jiale (Koh Jia Ler).

From here, we see the real cracks in the family’s armour. There are issues within the family (husband and wife are unable to communicate with each other, son acts out seeking attention). There are also issues between Teresa and her family back home – she’s in a desperate situation if she has to leave her young son behind to be cared for by her family. How the family dynamic changes and reacts not only to each other’s problems but also to the growing financial crisis around them provide a great part of the drama of this film. Hwee is also pregnant, and Teck’s skills as a salesman in the current financial climate are failing him, and this brings added tension to the household. The relationship between the parents and their child Jiale is also tested. Koh Jia Ler as Jiale does a superb job as a young actor in portraying a startlingly entitled yet very lonely boy. It’s because of this that Jiale and Teresa form a somewhat strange friendship, relying on each other for some sort of companionship while the world around them feels so foreign.

The other relationship Ilo Ilo concentrates on is the one between the parents, particularly Hwee, with their new employee, Teresa. She is treated poorly, given hand-me-down clothes like she was a charity case and looked upon as a second-class citizen. Teresa makes the sign of the cross before eating her meal and Hwee gives her a puzzled look. Hwee also becomes jealous of Teresa as she bonds with her son Jiale. Yeo Yann Yann as Hwee is both frustrated but also strong enough to know that keeping her family together through financial difficulty is her priority, (she won the Best Supporting Actress award at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival) and in this way she is caring for her family just as Teresa is caring for hers.

Angeli Bayani as Teresa is great in this film. She perfectly captures the disillusionment felt working for a family that cares very little for her (in one scene, Hwee takes away Teresa’s passport “in case she tries to run away”), and being in charge of young Jiale, who, due to his upbringing and the general notion in his society that a maid is a lower class of person, treats Teresa with disrespect. But Bayani’s Teresa doesn’t take this without standing up for herself, telling Jiale, “I am your maid … I didn’t come here to be bullied!”

Another interesting aspect of this film is the portrayal of the community of Filipino maids. They’re all in the same predicament – far from home and only there for money to bring back to their families. They’re really strangers in a strange land. Teresa encounters things in her building that highlight her bewilderment with her living situation. After Teresa tells a fellow maid her age, the maid tells her, “You’ll work here for a long time”, as if foreseeing the bleak outlook of Teresa’s young life now that she is a domestic worker. It’s not a side of life many Australians know anything about, however it’s been well documented that Filipino maids are often experience hardship not only at the hands of their employers but within the community they live in.

This isn’t to say that director Anthony Chen’s Camera d’Or-winning film is a scathing critique on the society or community these characters live in, however if you are aware of the hardships faced by people in similar situations then you will definitely take these elements into consideration. Rather, Ilo Ilo is about how the relationships develop, flourish or perish, what they gain from each other and how they move on despite their differences. Ilo Ilo has been described as heart-warming, but it’s not in the way you’d think. It’s a film that should be watched if you want to understand the true meaning of what being a sympathetic human being is all about, and a film that shouldn’t be missed.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Ilo Ilo screened as part of the 61st Sydney Film Festivall. The film also screens at the Travelling Film Festival in Newcastle on Saturday 21 June at 12pm.

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