Directed by: Anthony Chen
Starring: Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Tian Wen Chen, Yann Yann Yeo
Tender, humored and well-observed, Ilo Ilo arrived at the Brighton Film Festival on a wave of good words from the international festival circuit and debut feature awards from both Cannes & London for writer/director Anthony Chen.
Set in Singapore in the late 90s, Ilo Ilo follows Teck & Hwee Leng Lim and their rebellious son Jiale. The arrival of Teresa, the family’s new maid, begins to put pressure on the already strained relationship between mother and child, as she begins to develop a bond with Jiale. Meanwhile, around them, the worsening financial crisis begins to be felt by everyone.
Mixing family drama with social observation, Chen’s picture expertly lays bare the harsh realities of a financial crisis from a relatable viewpoint. The intense camera work offers little time to gasp at the beautiful Singaporean surroundings, but does inject the film with a raw quality that effectively grounds the film in reality. His direction is assured, mixing different techniques to accentuate the growing fear of an unseen monster; one of the film’s finest scenes, in which a random neighbor who has presumably lost everything in the crash jumps to his death, is a sudden moment of abject horror that brutally highlights people’s desperation and despair.
At times deeply moving and at others subtly comical, Chen weaves his tale with admirable sincerity. The cast, who are unlikely to be known to many viewers in the West, are universally superb. Yann Yann Yeo as mother Hwee Leng is particularly eye opening. Heavily pregnant at the time of filming, Yeo’s performance poignantly captures both the growing dread of her country’s finances and the jealously of a mother who feels unable to connect with her growing son. The bond that develops between Jiale and Teresa is arguably the film’s finest element. The note-perfect performances from Angeli Bayani and the young Koh Jia Ler believably depicting a relationship that flowers slowly, their need for each other never immediately made clear.
Like many debuting directors, Chen struggles with the many plot strands he develops. The middle, in particular, becomes unbalanced; Chen gives himself too many different avenues to explore, unfortunately meaning that some are pushed to the side as the core stories develop, with little to no resolution. However, this is merely a small gripe in a feature debut that must be admired for both its warmth and candor in exploring such delicate subject matters.
Built on a foundation of fine performances and assured direction, Ilo Ilo is a memorable experience that is certainly deserving of its praise and awards. Anthony Chen’s exploration of family is touching, but it’s his examination of financial hardship that is particularly commendable and that will likely play on your mind long after the film is finished.