Interview: Director Anthony Chen on ‘Ilo Ilo’

Ilo Ilo

Ed: Yee-Yin saw Ilo Ilo (read her review first!) at the 2013 Stockholm International Film Festival, and she was lucky enough to secure an interview with the film’s director, Anthony Chen, on November 7, 2013.

Yee-Yin: I actually think of Ilo Ilo as a period drama piece, being set in the late 1990s, although films from this particular time period are probably not considered as such. What made you decide to make a film based in this era?

Anthony Chen: I think it’s quite natural for me, having been born in the 80s and grown up in the 90s so the 90s is a time period I understand well, and this film is based on my own childhood memories. And I’m still trying to understand contemporary Singapore actually, so I can’t really comment on it as a period drama.

YY: Well, in terms of production design, was it difficult to get the film set right, to have the look of the 90s?

AC: It was actually very difficult, even though people think, oh, it wasn’t that long ago the 90s, but Singapore has changed so much in the last 20 years; it looks like Dubai nowadays, with all the steel and glass buildings. We spent 3 weeks looking around hundreds of residential building blocks in order to find the apartment complex (where Jia Ler’s family lives) that we shot the film in, and the apartment was completely empty and we had to furnish everything. We even had to drive to Malaysia just to buy the fabric for the curtains and cushion covers, you know, it’s hard to find anything different in Singapore in terms of home décor.

I drove around the industrial area of Singapore for 3 days, knocking on the doors of many factories, and got chased out by countless security guards and receptionists, before we found the location for the office scenes where the character of Jia Ler’s mother works in. Even then, all the computers were flat screens and looked very ‘modern’ and we had to bring in old computers, which were not that easy to get a hold of, and they all had to be installed with Windows 95 because it’s important that the set feels authentic to help the actors get into the roles.

Speaking of which, I actually dragged the actress who plays Jia Ler’s mother off to the salon to get one of these ‘auntie’ 90s perm for her role in the film and she hated it, thought it was absolutely ghastly! But that was how middle class people looked in the 90s! They had awful taste and style, they just didn’t know it! (laughs) I actually gave the hairstylist a photo of my mother working in the office, with the same perm.

YY: So you obviously had to rely on your own recollections and personal materials to generate the look of the film. Are there any other sources that you used?

AC: A lot of it comes from my head, from what I remember, and of course I relied a lot on family photographs from my childhood, and also collected photos from my friends and people I know. It was about creating a look that was as authentic as possible, to create a sincere portrait of a family in Singapore in the 90s.

YY: One of your short films, Grandma, that was shown at the Stockholm Film Festival a few years ago, was about family relationships. And now you have made a feature length film about family life as well. What do you think could be the underpinning factors, if any, in your interest in making family dramas?

AC: It’s hard for me to ascertain why… I made about 10 short films over the last 10 years before making Ilo Ilo and family seems to be a recurring theme for me. But it’s strange because my parents often complain that I treat my friends better than my own family, and my wife always says that I love films and movie making more than her (laughs), so in that sense I am not really a family-oriented man at all.

I’m a big fan of the Japanese director (Yasujiro) Ozu’s films and they are about family as well, so perhaps I am influenced, either directly or indirectly, I don’t know. This is a good question for psychoanalysis, I think, which maybe I can answer much later in life; maybe 10 years from now when I look back and can somehow make some sense of this.

YY: You mentioned Ozu as a main influence in your films. Are there other directors who have also influenced your work?

AC: I don’t really like to use the word ‘influence’ because I think critics or the audience see a film and say it reminds them of this and that. I don’t set out to make a film that is similar to others or copy someone else, but I do admire many Asian directors who may perhaps have influenced my work, like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang, Ang Lee, Lee Chang Dong, Hirakazu Kore-eda. In many ways, their films always revolve around family.

YY: Perhaps it has something to do with the Asian heritage, to focus on the complexity of family issues and relationships?

AC: Maybe, but at the same time Asian films also focus on pretty straightforward themes and genres like martial arts, action films and melodramatic love stories, so it’s hard to just stereotype what Asian films are.

YY: Well, along those lines, Ilo Ilo seems to have broken new ground and went beyond the usual ‘stereotype’ then, because it is about something much deeper than just a regular family drama, and gotten a lot attention outside of Singapore and even Asia.

AC: Yes, the producers and the team, we have been quite surprised at the positive response and praise Ilo Ilo has received. I mean, you sort of have to be a Singaporean to have a feel of what the film is saying but the film has proven to be a lot more universal than I thought — it has won a couple of major awards, and doing well at box offices in France and Singapore and gaining popularity internationally. It is a humble, small little film and when I was putting the film together, there were many naysayers who didn’t think anyone would want to watch a film about a Filipino maid and a kid, and certainly no one not Singaporean.

The film seems to have a life of its own now. It is nominated for 6 awards, including Best Film, at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards, which is like the Chinese Oscars and this has never happened to a Singaporean film before, you know, we are sort of in the minor league. So this feels like we have turned a corner, and started a new chapter.

YY: Do you feel like it’s a big responsibility? That you’ve made a film that’s an untold story affecting many people in Asia, where every other household in many parts of the region have maids, but no one cares to talk about these people’s hardships, dreams and goals in life and also how live-in domestic help often changes some part of the family dynamics

AC: Yeah, I think so. I think it is opening many doors for a new generation of filmmakers in Singapore and Malaysia. Because for the longest time, cinema in our region is only concerned with making action, gangster flicks and slapstick comedies so Ilo Ilo has proven that Asian films don’t have to follow a type of formula or use the lowest common denominator to appeal to mainstream audience. It shows that if you make something very honest, personal and naturalistic, people will be able to relate to it.

YY: OK, so one last question: do you have any works in the pipeline or future ideas for your next film?

AC: I don’t really know yet, but my next film will be an English language film, made in the UK, where I am currently based. Although it’ll still be about family, it will be very different from Ilo Ilo. I’m still looking forward to making films in Asia, but maybe not so soon, maybe in a few years, and hopefully the baton can be passed on to someone else, to continue the new wave of Singaporean cinema. And I’m looking forward to what other surprises this film might bring. It has been a surreal journey.

Author’s note: Since the interview in early November, Ilo Ilo has won 4 awards from its 6 nominations at the Golden Horse last week: Best Picture, Best Debut Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress.

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