Resonance with local film Ilo Ilo

The local film Ilo Ilo by director Anthony Chen that won the Camera d’Or prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival 2013. Convinced by the magnitude of the win, compounded with a desire to experience the winning film in person, a group of us Literature teachers (familiar with the body of local works in both text and film) took the opportunity to do so during the school holidays last evening. Although we walked out of the theatre with mixed reviews about the film, I felt that it was one of few films that resonated with me and my experience as a child living with a maid in Singapore. Even Captain America or Star Trek did not do that for me – they wowed me with amazing CGI effects and the best-looking hunks around, but they did not connect with me the same way Ilo Ilo did.

Ilo Ilo

Alert: Spoilers follow. 

A friend said the film was “pretentious”, that it presented a skewed and hence unreal dimension of Singapore living. But what I saw was a certain degree of raw honesty that went into the storytelling of the film. The plot could have easily subscribed to local stereotypes or extremes which we are all too familiar with, thanks to other local writers like Catherine Lim, gone down the path of prostitution, explored the illicit sexual relationships between employer-employee, familial divorce or child abuse. I appreciated how it avoided the usual plot gimmicks to stir up an audience reaction, and instead chose to weave a fine thin web of its own to tell an ordinary story.

A friend remarked that Ilo Ilo is

not your typical movie … It’s more like someone opening their hearts to tell you a sincere story from a part of their life for you to know them better.

It challenges your conventional expectations of what a film should be like. The film offers an episode into the lives of a Singaporean family who employs a domestic helper (or a maid) to look after their only son. You only get an episode, and nothing more – even as part of the audience looking at the Lim family through the camera lens, we do not understand many things; many things are left unsaid. For me, it was all these unspoken subtleties that made the film work.

Also, I appreciated how they dealt with the individual characters in the film, especially in the person of Teresa. They could have easily subscribed to societal norms of maids being subservient and voiceless, who was under immense pressure to earn wages for their family back home, and would hence jump at almost any opportunity to get their hands on quick cash. The film offered numerous possibilities of Teresa giving into such temptation, especially after a neighbour tells her on her first day at work that “the rosaries do not work” and she should give up her faith in God. The film hints at the potential of an adulterous relationship between she and her boss. Teresa is given a fair amount of screen time alone with her boss, Mr Lee – one with him in his undies, and between them, they share a little secret that could cause division within the family (he smokes). The film also hints at the possibility of prostitution or sex-for-money exchanges, and of Teresa caving in to stealing money. At one point her neighbour offers her an envelope full of cash to be sent back in trust that Teresa would drop it off at the mailbox for her – right after we hear her phone exchange with her sister that they needed more money than Teresa could give. But the film deliberately serves up those distasteful possibilities to the audience, then yanks the bait away and directs the audience into a different direction.

I loved it that Teresa was not the usual quiet and helpless, one-dimensional domestic help who had no opinion of her own. When she stood up for herself by giving Jia Le a good, well-deserved scolding, proving to the entire theatre that she was a smart lady who would not let herself be bullied by the young master. The times when Jia Le’s antics would escape his parents, but Teresa would catch on quickly and take over the role of the parent in disciplining the child. Teresa’s character was made even more realistic and humane when we see her trying on Mam’s lipstick, and then feeling guilty when she feared she might be caught, or when she takes on a hairdressing job illegally on her off-days and gradually during her free time in the day. Teresa does grow bolder as time passes, but all those human weaknesses together with her sense of right and wrong, her responsibility towards the child, and her witty observation of the Lim family, made her character an extremely flavourful, well thought one. I thought it was genius that the audience ultimately shares the sentiments of Mrs Lim as we do not know how much to trust Teresa. How desperate was she for money? How far would she go? Would she neglect her responsibility to the family and Jia Le? Would she do anything that would get her into serious trouble? 

I had at least five or six domestic helpers who lived for us when I was growing up. The look on Jia Le’s face when he stares deep into Teresa reveals a myriad of emotions – indignance at her arrival, irritation at her presence, bewilderment at her maturity despite the nasty jokes he played on her, reluctance as he accepts the attention she showers him, affection when they spend more time together and he grows to trust her, respect and admiration as he looks to her gradually as a mother figure – those same emotions I remember experiencing as a Singaporean kid with two working parents. That role was very impressively played.

Even the subtle feelings of tension and jealousy between Mrs Lim and Teresa, or the helplessness as the couple embraced one another at the end of the film were wonderfully played out and dealt with.

Again, it is the unspoken subtleties that made the film work. At some moments I thought the two parents would end up in a divorce, but I was surprised that the word “divorce” or “separation” did not come up once. Would it come up ever? Perhaps. But even if the quarrels and problems they faced would drive the family onto the path of divorce, the film made it clear that it was only interested in presenting a snapshot of life of a Singaporean family – a humble slice of life as we know it.

I loved the moments of irony and witty humour injected into the plot. There was a terrifically distinct local flavour to the whole film, which may be what allowed it to be packaged with a huge ribbon win at Cannes this year. It had a vintage 1980s feel which thrilled me – the rosy-coloured wedding photographs by the bed, the wooden mantlepiece where the sepia-printed family portraits would sit on, the tamagotchi game set (haha), the radio, the exercise books and the way lessons were conducted in a classroom that looked incredibly old-school. I really enjoyed those artistic touches which added a beautiful, humanistic realism to the entire movie experience.

It was an interesting experience watching a local film in a long time – it definitely feels different than watching superhero movies or Hollywood blockbusters in the cinema. I knew that the film did not only resonate with me, because every now and then, at particular moments, the audience would erupt into either roars of laughter at those hilariously true moments (like Jia Le’s nonsensical but brilliant antics to get out of trouble), groan at the slapstick Singaporean humour (LAME), heave sighs of relief, the mumbling at the possibility of the parents being laid off (it’s all too familiar for us)… A whole string of emotions came with the movie experience, and I loved almost every minute of it. (Apart from this man sitting behind us who sneezed several times during the film, and at a few points, took it upon himself to narrate the story, interrupting with his own smart-alec comments.) It was a very Singaporean experience of watching the film and having an audience that seemed to understand the nuances of the film just like we did. This is a brief but raw and ordinary retelling of the life of a Singaporean family over a span of a few short months. It’s superb storytelling techniques, local flavour, great casting and vintage cinematography makes this a wonderful holiday film to catch and a great conversation topic.

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