Ilo Ilo 爸媽不在家 (2013) Review

Winners of Camera d’Or (an award for best first feature film) at the prestigious 2013 Cannes Film Festival as well as Taiwan’s Golden Horse Award (which nabbed four awards including Best Film and Best New Director), this low-budget Singaporean drama Ilo Ilo is truly a remarkable feat for a first-time feature director Anthony Chen.

Set in Singapore during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Ilo Ilo revolves around 10-year-old Singaporean boy, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) and the newly-hired Filipino maid, Terry (Angeli Bavani) who at first doesn’t see eye-to-eye with each other. But their relationship gradually improves when the resilient Terry manages to earn affection and respect from the hardheaded Jiale. Meanwhile, Jiale’s parent — pregnant mother Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) and recently jobless father Teck (Chen Tianwen) — are struggling to deal with their own family and financial matter.

Prior to Ilo Ilo, Anthony Chen has already crafted his name in the world of short films with critically acclaimed efforts such as Ah Ma and Haze. In Ilo Ilo, Chen proves to be a gifted filmmaker who knows well how to tell a great story. In fact, he actually inspired the movie from his own personal experience when he grew up in Singapore during the 90s with a Filipino maid and a family suffering from financial woes.

His direction is meticulous where everything here is presented in a uniquely Singaporean manner. Among some of the themes that everyone (at least for Singaporeans) can relate to, is the kiasu (literally means “fear of losing”) attitude of a typical middle-class Singaporean family when dealing their domestic or personal problems, as well as Chen’s hilarious perspective on how people usually react when comes to buying lottery numbers. Production values are suitably top-notch, notably Benoit Soler’s down-to-earth cinematography which perfectly evokes the sense of time and place of 1997 Singapore.

The cast here is just as noteworthy, with newcomer Koh Jia Ler impresses a lot as the troublemaker Jiale. Despite this is only his first acting debut, Koh Jia Ler proves to be a gifted actor who definitely has a bright future ahead. Angeli Bayani is a tour de force as the Filipino maid Terry, while her chemistry with Jia Ler is genuinely heartfelt. Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann (who won Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Horse Award) is pitch-perfect as a typical Singaporean working-class woman, while Singaporean theatre and TV veteran Chen Tianwen shows an amazing range of top-class acting in his first big-screen debut as the family’s breadwinner who faces uncertainty in life after losing his job.

Poignant, funny and heartbreaking, Anthony Chen’s feature debut in Ilo Ilo is a true gem of a Singaporean drama.

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