There are films that do a slow simmer in one's psyche', their impact not truly revealing itself for hours, maybe days, and maybe even weeks later. Ilo Ilo, the debut feature film from Anthony Chen, is such a film.
Winner of the Camera D'Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and Singapore's entry into the 2014 Academy Awards, Ilo Ilo is an honest and thought-provoking drama that avoids histrionics in favor of honesty and avoids anything resembling a misstep.
The film centers around a family living in Singapore in the 1990's, a time of financial unrest in the populous Asian nation and a time when such stressors were wreaking havoc on families across the country. Much of the film more precisely centers around Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), a troubled young boy who seems to have become detached from school, his family, and anything resembling decent behavior. He doesn't take too kindly when his parents, played by Yann Yann Yeo and Tian Wen Chen, hire a Filipino maid named Teresa (Angeli Bayani) to help with the house and him.
In America, this basic storyline would become overwrought with high-conflict story arcs and would be all tied up in a pretty bow by film's end in an effort to squeeze a few tears out of the audience. Fortunately, Chen avoids the Americanized approach and constructs a film that feels authentic and honest throughout it's nearly 99-minute running time. An accident opens the door to the building of trust between Jiale and Teresa, a trust and building relationship that leads to more than a little jealousy on the part of Yann Yann Yeo's Hwee Leng, a more disciplinarian mother who is struggling to cope with an increasingly stressful workplace and anxieties over her potential job loss in the challenging economy.
The film demands, if it is to be effective, a controlled yet sympathetic performance from young Koh Jia Ler. Fortunately, he delivers with a performance that leaves you wondering, at least in the early stages of the film, just exactly where his behavior is coming from and exactly how far it's going to go. As the film evolves, we get more and more glimpses into the psychological make-up of these characters and the psychosocial stressors that they are under. Rather than creating characters that are easily drawn as good or bad, Chen has developed characters whose humanity is dramatically impacted by the world in which they live.
In addition to a fine performnace from Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani gives a rich and heartfelt performance as Teresa, a woman trying to build a life for herself during a time when doing so is quite difficult. Bayani's performance is decidedly low-key, as is much of the film, and it works beautifully in portraying a young woman whose entire life must remain at least partially hidden. Yann Yann Yeo and Tian Wen Chen also perform solidly as the parents, both dealing with their stressors in their own unique ways while also struggling to do what they must to hold the family together.
After a successful festival run in 2013, Ilo Ilo arrives on home video with indie distributor Film Movement here in the United States on April 4th. For those who would prefer a more intelligent and authentic family and social drama, this is a film to not be missed.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic