Today Anthony Chen’s Camera d’Or-winning film Ilo Ilo makes its cinematic homecoming. And despite a 15-minute standing ovation in Cannes this May and universal praise from critics, the budding 29-year-old Singaporean screenwriter and director is feeling a last minute blast of hometown heat.
“I feel the pressure… especially bringing the film back to Singapore,” he said. “I’m really nervous about that because I don’t think a film like this has been shown here before…I have some worries, some concerns, because in Singapore only a few types of films will make it … usually comedies.” He added that “specifically speaking, the film has won such a huge award, I don’t know if everyone will expect too much of it.”
Based on initial responses from those invited to the film’s sneak peak screenings this past week, Chen’s fears seem unwarranted. And if pre-screening hype has set the bar high for audiences, the film seems to have met their expectations. No less than the Lion City’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave the film a thumbs up. At the close of its gala premiere on August 24, the hometown audience rose to give the domestic drama yet another standing ovation.
“All that hype?” asks Mayo Martini. “It’s well-deserved and much, much more.” A quick scan of the film’s official poster reveals a handful of four and four-and-a-half star reviews, alongside copious kindness from critics: “True and authentic” (Le Monde), “Brimming with love, humor and heartbreak” (Variety), A film that Singaporeans can be proud to call their own” (Fmoviemag.com).
Ilo Ilo tells the story of the Lims, a Singaporean family weathering the storm of the late-1990s Southeast Asian financial crisis. A pregnant mother named Heww Leng (played by Malaysian-born actress Yann Yann Yeo) works as an office administrator where she is kept busy writing employee dismissal letters. Yeo was actually pregnant when the film was being made – a fact that Chen decided to work into the story, which he modified the script to do.
Her husband Teck, a salesman played by Tian Wen Chen, loses his job and with it feels emasculated. Against this economically harsh backdrop the couple hires a Filipina nanny named Terry (played by Filipina actress Angeli Bayani) to take care of their bratty son Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) who attends a prep school. As the subtle domestic drama unfolds, a number of storylines are introduced, but remain open-ended – like life. The film’s strength lies in its exposition of character.
At the center of the film is the ongoing relationship between Terry and Jiale. A people-pleaser, Terry is initially tormented by Jiale’s antics, but as the story unfolds, their relationship softens, without becoming mushy. “Chen approaches the material with a candour that doesn’t have room for bromides,” Screen Daily notes. “Ilo Ilo is subdued, but its emotional wallop sneaks up on you.” Perhaps the main reason for the movie’s emotional punch lies in its inspiration, which stems directly from Chen’s childhood. He had this to say about his own experience with a nanny:
When I was much younger, my mother hired a Filipino maid to look after the children. Teresa was with us for a long 8 years until I was 12 years old. We called her Auntie Terry. When she left to return home, it was hard to bear, but we got used to her absence and somehow lost contact. I believe the universal experience of children growing up with maids is one of having a “surrogate” mother, a friend and a confidant. The one thing that has stayed with me after all these years is the name of the place she was from, Iloilo, a province in the Philippines. That is how the title of the film came about.
This July, Anthony and his brother Christopher actually took the trip to Iloilo Province where they were reunited with Auntie Terry (real name: Teresita Sajonia) after 16 years of separation. “Words were unnecessary as they embraced. It was an emotional moment for all who were present,” Singaporean Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao reported. Now 56, Sajonia lives in San Miguel where she sells fruits and vegetables. Living in poverty, Sajonia suffers from poor vision and malnutrition.
“There are many domestic helpers working in Singapore,” the report quoted Chen as saying. “We thought when they return home, they’ll be able to afford a big house, or run a small business. But the truth is not always the case.”
The Chens gave Sanjonia money, clothing, shoes, vitamin supplements and a pair of glasses when they saw the state she was living in. Singaporean businessman Charles L. Lim, who lives in the Philippines, paid to have the Chen’s former nanny and her partner flown to Singapore to attend the film’s premiere – the first time she has returned to Singapore since leaving at age 40.
The film is as much a sympathetic portrait of Filipina domestic helpers as it is a family drama. “It feels overwhelming to have a foreigner appreciate a Filipino worker even after a decade or so has passed,” writes The Madhouse MNL Magazine. “People like Teresa dignify a job that is often deemed cheap and low. As this film takes over the International scene, we hope our OFWs and Domestic Workers could also receive the same respect as the foreigners would give to Auntie Terry.”
The official Ilo Ilo trailer can be viewed here.