Set entirely in Singapore during the Asian economic crisis of 1997, the film chronicles the life of troublesome child, Jiale (Koh Jai Ler) - who holds the worst discipline record in his school. Now becoming hard work for his heavily pregnant mother Leng (Yan Yann Yeo) and job-struck father, Teck (Tian Wen Chen) to care for the family hire a Filipino immigrant to be a live-in maid and nanny.
Portrayed in the stellar performance by Angela Bayani, Teresa (called Aunt Terry by Jiale) is dutiful and begins to conform to life as a domestic worker in Singapore, alongside putting up with Jiale’s antics. The Chinese title of the film, Ilo Ilo translates to ‘Mom and Dad are not at home’ – which could not be truer in correspondence to the nature of the film.
Although a small budget film, the story is ambitious and continuously driven by the four central leads. Following the friendship between Jiale and Teresa, the film shows the characters in both the rough and smooth until they eventually form a close relationship. So much so that the mother becomes slowly notices and becomes jealous to the point where it threatens her bond with her son. ‘I am his mother, not you!’ – she outbreaks in one scene.
Based on the personal experiences of writer/director Anthony Chen, it the most observational domestic drama that seen capturing the true reality of everyday life. Crafted elegantly, the emotional scenes seem authentic and not over-the-top pushed. Notably, there is also no soundtrack which allows the story to simply carry us.
Brash in seriousness of the crisis, but seen through the eyes of a 10 year old, the film contains many undertones of humour – such as Jiale bribing his head teacher with lottery numbers to avoid a punishment.
Filmed in present day, but set in the 1990’s the films echoes the atmosphere perfectly via the sets and pale sepia cinematography. Everything flows and everything seems real – right down the stereotypical 90’s typewriters, tape players and Tamagotchis in fact.
Anthony Chen has crafted a prestigious character driven drama all in the backdrop of cinematic Singapore that hits all of the right notes. In succession to doing so the film won the Camera D’or award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, as well as scooping another 26 awards worldwide.