Winner of the Camera d’Or for best debut feature at Cannes 2013, Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo is a masterfully intimate look at Singaporean family life.
A Boy of My Own by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Set against the precise backdrop of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Ilo Ilo draws on director Anthony Chen’s own experiences of growing up in Singapore’s concrete jungle in the care of a Filipino nanny or “auntie”. As the film begins, Jiale, who is marking time as an only child, is in trouble at school and clearly not for the first time. With maternal concern from his heavily pregnant mother at a premium, he is dragged home to the family’s high-rise apartment and angrily told off.
Today is not to be an ordinary day. Comfortably well-off it appears, the family is about to be joined by a new member: Terry, a live-in maid-cum-housekeeper-cum-nanny newly arrived from the Philippines. Hardly welcomed with open arms, she is immediately informed of her duties and swiftly relieved of her passport should she decide the grass definitely isn’t greener. Terry is then shown to her sleeping quarters. In this small two-bedroom flat she will be sharing with an aghast Jiale. Awkwardly forced into close proximity thanks to a mattress that rolls out from underneath the boy’s bed, both have little choice but to adapt to this new situation.
It soon materialises that Jiale’s behaviour has been particularly naughty since the recent death of his grandfather and the arrival of an interloper into the family unit was never likely to result in a smooth transition. A tussle of wills ensues. Despite Terry’s attempt to patiently accommodate Jiale’s misdemeanours, things come to a head when he tries to frame her for shoplifting in a local store. Terry finally snaps, warning him “I didn’t come here be bullied.” What she did come here for, we learn, was to earn a decent living to financially support her own son back home. Leaving him in the care of her sister to look after someone else’s son in a different country is a reality for countless migrant workers across South East Asia that is not without irony. Eventually Jiale’s hostility towards Terry softens and their relationship morphs into one of support and friendship, to the extent that his mother begins to feel somewhat undervalued, although given that she keeps her caring side well and truly under wraps this is perhaps not surprising.
Concern for the family’s seemingly worsening economic problems soon become the focus for both parents. Stuck in a dead-end sales job from which he is rapidly fired when things get tough, Jiale’s father’s suggestion of starting his own business is instantly shot down by his wife’s cutting, but perhaps insightful, assessment that he’d never manage to make it succeed. All he’s good for is a security guard position. His wife’s employment situation is little better; managing to hold down her job as a secretary by constantly being on hand to type up dismissal letters for her dwindling colleagues; as her pregnant belly swells, she must surely be next. In the grip of the crisis, the suicide of a neighbour is evidence of the fact that this family is far from alone. Terry is also forced to take a second job to supplement the funds she sends home, moonlighting at a hairdressers in a nearby glossy shopping mall, something that could compromise her immigration status as a domestic worker were she to be caught.
Although Jiale and Terry’s bond strengthens, the boy’s behaviour at school deteriorates further and he is eventually expelled for fighting a boy who questions whether Terry really loves him or is paid to do so. She dashes down to the school to plead for his innocence when his mother cannot be reached at work. When she does eventually arrive, she tells it to Terry straight, “I’m his mother, not you.” The inevitable cannot be delayed any longer. Pushed closer and closer to financial breaking point, the couple realise that Terry’s wages are a luxury they can no longer afford and she is forced to return home to her own family. Jiale is of course distraught as she leaves, and one wonders whether his broken relationship with his own mother will ever recover. The birth shortly afterwards of his sister, another mouth to feed, throws this further into doubt.
Openly recognised by the director as inspired by his own childhood experiences, Chen was keen to examine the issue of foreign maids away from the media spotlight of the many cases of mistreatment on the part of either employer or nanny: “What one forgets is that an entire generation of children has grown up in the hands of maids… What is intriguing and never brought to light is the emotional interrelations created, nurtured, cherished, and yet brutally taken away when circumstances change.” What will become of Jiale or Terry remains unexplored, yet the touching nature of their relationship will surely leave its mark on them both.
Ilo Ilo is released on 2nd May 2014 in the UK