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ILO ILO – Review

May 2, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia

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It’s always a pleasure to find out that a warm and enveloping story gets the attention it deserves, releasing in theatres across the UK on May 2nd on the wave of appraise it’s received since winning the Cannes Film Festival ‘Camera D’or’ last year. More recently it won the Sutherland Award at the BFI film Festival; awarded to the maker of the most original and imaginative film of the year. Director Anthony Chen breathes new life into the family drama by focusing on the themes of family and maternity, wielding a tightly written script evoking sympathy for every one of its characters.

The film begins in Singapore, before the 1997 economic downturn has taken hold and forced many into unemployment. Focusing on a middle-class family, mother and father Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) and Teck (Chen Tianwen) must find a way to keep their family together as they prepare for the birth of their second child and deal with their troublesome son. Their son Jiale is a mischievous 10 year-old and frequently causes trouble at his school; our introduction to Jiale has him faking an injury to blackmail his teacher, this drives Hwee mad and decides to employ a nanny to help keep the home in order while she’s at work.

Jiale is played expertly by Koh Jia Ler, who was selected from 5000 children to be in the film which was filmed over summer 2012; it even manages to incorporate Yeo Yann Yann’s pregnancy into the script adding another layer to the family’s financial woes. The strength comes from the depth the actors are able to give to their characters, interacting with each other and the random events of life – Hwee becomes in charge of redundancies at her office and realises she might be looking for a new job too. There is no central character to this film, though Jiale plays an integral role in everybody’s life it’s his nanny Teresa (Angeli Bayani) – with whom he forms the strongest bond – who steals the limelight.

Teresa (‘Terry’) left her home and her own son in the Philippines’ to earn more money in Singapore, which is a common story among Philippine workers in Asian countries at the time. She is hired to help out around the home but Jiale takes an immediate dislike to her and tries to get her fired and out of his home. Terry takes a firm approach against Jiale when he frames her for robbing a store, by telling him that she is there to do her job whether he likes her is not her problem; a style of parenting he’s not at all familiar with. Jiale continues to misbehave but after a while the two warm up to each other and form a strong bond made up of sarcasm, playful teasing and heart. This of course annoys Jiale’s mother Hwee, feeling betrayed and replaced by Terry she becomes more domineering towards the family, chastising her husband, son and reminds Terry that she is not the mother.

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The 1997 downturn begins to take its toll on the family, Teck loses his job and finds it increasingly hard to become employed for even low wage jobs, while Terry seeks employment during her day off work at a local hairdressers. Even Jiale makes plans to earn money (albeit through gambling) but still misbehaves, though not in Terry’s presence. The connections within the family are what pull this movie together. The drama isn’t played for laughs and the sincere moments aren’t emotionally exaggerated bringing genuineness to the film. Terry acts as the eyes into this family seeing all the sides of the family as a nanny, from defending Jiale at school to discovering Teck has started smoking bringing the cast closer together.

The film is tightly written and the effort to set the film in 1997 is realistically done (Tamagotchi and Walkman’s abound), setting an emotional drama that tugs at the heartstrings. Screened at the BFI London Film Festival it made waves amongst critics and Industry members alike, see it when you can and you will not be disappointed.

Ilo Ilo is out in UK cinemas on May 2nd

Sunny Ramgolam