Based on the director’s own childhood memories and experiences, Ilo Ilo is a low-key and intimate look at family life in the age of modernization in Singapore, in the midst of the late 1990s’ Asian Financial Crisis. It tells the story of Terry, a domestic worker from the province Ilo Ilo in The Philippines and her adjustment to her host environs and new life as a maid in a middle class household, hired by fulltime working parents to mind their precocious young son Jia Ler who’s been getting into trouble at school.
The narrative is viewed from the different perspectives of Terry, Jia Ler and each of his parents, each according to their roles and position in the family. Central to the story is Terry’s relationship with Jia Ler, who initially resents the presence of a stranger in his home, being put in her care no less. He does all he can to sabotage Terry’s tasks and make her life difficult but Terry proves that she is no doormat as she struggles to perform her duties, and gradually forms a bond with the boy.
The other main relationship takes place between Jia Ler’s parents, ostensibly fatigued with having to cope with maintaining a household with a second child on the way while being stuck in soul-draining jobs in a looming economic crisis. When they are not continuously bickering with each other, each is occupied with their own problems and the predicaments of their lives, leaving Jia Ler more or less to the care and attention of Terry (the film’s title in Chinese literally means ‘Father and Mother Not at Home’). There’s also a side story of the hardships faced by Terry, who has left her home (and her baby) to make a better living in a foreign country.
Although it calls to mind older Asian masterpieces that study family life from a close distance, like Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, Ilo Ilo brings a fresh and different take on the quiet portrayal of human interactions in a family setting as they endeavor to navigate between the many relationships and priorities of modern living. The plight of Filipino domestic workers is a story that must be told, and actress Angeli Bayani brings a stoic grace to the role of Terry. The story doesn’t preach nor patronize but subtly reveals a family drama with a rich texture of inter-generational relationships and complex social dynamics.
Likewise, Jia Ler’s parents, although they have seemingly neglected the basic instinct to care for their son, are portrayed simply as people trying to find their ways while enduring setbacks in life. The film’s tone would have been a bit heavy if not for the small, comical scenes that manifests throughout, niftily providing doses of humour that give the film an uplifting side angle.
The scenes in Ilo Ilo are skillfully framed, offering the audience a personal glimpse into a family’s everyday living as well as its daily grinds. Coupled with an all around stellar performance by the cast (the director reportedly auditioned 8,000 children for the role of Jia Ler in order to find the right fit), they convey a familiar atmosphere that may well resonate with many in the audience, especially those from a Southeast Asian background.
Ilo Ilo has generated much interest in Singapore where it is currently the highest ranking art house film, and it propelled a ‘Search for Auntie Terry’ campaign in The Philippines, after it was made known in an interview that the director has lost touch with ‘his Terry’ for many years. The Stockholm screenings were also well attended by the local Filipino community). Well-deserving of the accolades it has received (the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May and four awards, including Best Picture, at the recent Golden Horse Film Festival), this debut feature by Anthony Chen about a boy and his caretaker will pull at the audience’s heartstrings.
Yee-Yin saw Ilo Ilo at the 2013 Stockholm Film Festival, where it screened In Competition.