10:43 - 22nd September 2014, by David West

Ilo Ilo

Office professional Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) is pregnant with her second child – whilst her firstborn, a son called Jiale (Koh Jiale), is a moody brat who bites teachers and ignores every attempt to temper his behaviour. To make matters worse, the father of the house, Teck (Chen Tian Wen), faces losing his job in the middle of a recession. Into this rather tense domestic situation comes Terry (essayed by the acclaimed actress Angeli Bayani), a Filipino maid who is hired to help take care of the chores and supervise Jiale. Perhaps inevitably, given the tension she walks into, the newcomer has to battle some hostility from her host family.

Anthony Chen’s drama unfolds in Singapore in the 1990s when the Asian economic crisis was in full destructive flow. Leng spends much of her time at work writing dismissal letters for staff being laid off, and Teck is determined to hide his own employment problems from the family. Yeo Yann Yann has a difficult role as Leng for the simple reason that the matriarch of the Lim household is not exactly a warm fuzzy bundle of happiness. Leng’s sharp tongue gets regular exercise pointing out Teck’s many shortcomings, but as domineering as she is with her husband, she has no idea how to discipline her spoiled Little Emperor offspring.

Koh Jiale is excellent as the young troublemaker, who is a real rotter. Chen’s script admirably avoids the predictable path of having him become a reformed angel as the film unfolds. Instead, he becomes a likeable brat instead – but his faults remain. One particular subplot, about the boy’s combative relationship with one of the teachers at his school, also produces moments of great humour – and therein is one of the film’s strengths. It may be a family drama, but Chen directs with a light touch, always going for naturalism in the performances instead of histrionics, even in those moments when Teck reaches the end of his tether.

The beautiful Angeli Bayani (whom Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon director Ang Lee recently called ‘a national treasure’ of the Philippines) is tremendous as Terry, far and away the most engaging character in the story. It would be easy to use her situation as a platform for a diatribe about the exploitation of economic migrants – and Leng’s high-handed treatment of her new maid is often uncomfortable to watch – but the film’s focus is on the emotional bond that forms between Jiale and his new guardian. Chen Tian Wen gives Bayani a run for her money in the sympathy stakes as the hard-pressed Teck, trying to keep secrets both big and small from his nagging wife. There are some nice period details – Jialie’s ever-present Tamagotchi (how annoying were those things?) and the pager on Teck’s belt where now he’d have a mobile phone – but the 1990s setting mainly provides a wider backdrop of economic malaise to the difficulties, whether they are financial, personal or emotional. Ultimately, Anthony Chen’s debut feature marks him as a major new talent in Asian cinema.

Ilo Ilo, named for a province in the Philippines, is an emotionally rich drama driven by a tremendously strong cast.
SCORE: 5/5
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