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Ilo Ilo: A message of respect, love and hope

Chen’s well-paced debut tells of class and racial tensions within a Singaporean household

00:00 December 13, 2013

Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s award-winning film, Ilo Ilo, tells a simple story of how a bond is developed between a ten-year-old brat and his Filipina nanny, while the boy’s parents struggle to make ends meet. The scenes depicting real-life situations, for me, seemed so raw and this rawness makes the movie beautiful and stand out. I think this formula allows the movie to make a big impact on its audience with its message of respect, love and hope.

Chen’s debut feature tells of the class and racial tensions within a Singaporean household, and his uncomplicated approach allows each character to develop and become accessible to the audience.

The movie depicts the same predicament faced by many children in this region who are being taken care of by nannies from foreign countries, while their parents are at work. In the movie, the Singaporean couple Teck Lim (Chen Tian Wen) and Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) are raising an only child, ten-year-old Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), while another child is on the way. Tension starts to build when Teck loses his job as a sales executive and can’t bring himself to tell his family the bad news. Hwee, despite being pregnant, has to deal with the rigorous demands of her full-time job as a secretary. The couple hires Terry (Angeli Bayani), a nanny from the Philippines, to help look after Jiale after the child starts to act up in response to the rising tension.

When Terry arrives, Jiale feels ashamed of having a nanny with after him everywhere he goes and tries to bully her. Despite her timidity, Terry asserts herself, telling the boy: “I came here to be your maid. I did not come here to be bullied.”

Chen’s well-paced film is driven by its main characters, whose desires, hopes and frustrations are gradually revealed as each responds to the growing tension in the family. He adeptly intertwines the mounting financial troubles of the couple with the hurly-burly, if not amusing, relationship between Jiale and Terry.

Bruised ego

The movie portrays Teck as a dignified father with a bruised ego whose luck seems to run out. He is sympathetic towards Terry. The mother, while displaying streaks of spitefulness and high-handedness towards the nanny, comes out in the movie as a unifying force that keeps the family together. She is at a crossroads: she feels jealous of her son’s growing closeness with his nanny, but feels helpless about it as she has other responsibilities that prevent her from spending quality time with Jiale.

The couple’s characterisation is best described during a conversation between them when the wife tells the husband: “You’re the good cop, I’m the bad cop.”

Jiale himself is someone many can perhaps relate to. Beneath his temper and impishness, he is a playful and genuinely loyal kid. And as Terry leaves the family at the end of the movie, Jiale’s reaction will make it hard for audiences not to be teary-eyed.