A narrative thread notably absent from Martin’s Scorsese’s recent ode to the excesses of 80’s corporate greed, The Wolf of Wall Street, is the experience of the victims of the financial fallout from that era. The feature film debut of talented young Singaporean Anthony Chen, Ilo Ilo, offers us a first hand look into the difficulties of that period by focusing on a modest family in the face of increasingly desperate financial hardship in his native city. A semi-autobiographical account, the film tells the story of the Lim family in the late 90’s holding onto their pride and social standing by hiring a maid from the Philippines called Teresa to help care for their troubled son while they both work full time to pay the bills. We immediately recognise a world where work is scarce and both parents must keep their heads down to avoid being the next in line for redundancy.
The mother is played assuredly by Yeo Yann Yann and she is the archetypal matriarch, clearly in charge of the family both financially and psychologically. Meanwhile, the father -(an impressive turn from Chen Tian Wen) is increasingly browbeaten throughout – even resorting to keeping his smoking habit from his wife and blaming the cigarette butts outside their apartment on the neighbours. They both effectively provide a tense backdrop to the real relationship of the film, between Teresa and their troubled 11 year old son Jiale.
What begins as a resentful pairing conducted under sufferance by both parties becomes a co-dependence to get through increasingly difficult circumstances. Angeli Bayani as Teresa gives the film its heart with a tender performance playing the maid thrust into the lives of the struggling family and she gives the role a real sense of dignity and purpose. Koh Jia Ler in his debut performance as Jiale takes on the difficult role of the aggressive and frustrated son and with very little dialogue allows us to feel sympathy for his plight. Jiale is not a character designed to deserve the audience’s pity and yet we come to recognise it is his strict and somewhat lonely upbringing that has made him difficult to be around.
The film is shot in a very naturalistic style with largely available light and handheld cameras, and doesn’t use music to fine-tune our emotions. So we’re very much in documentary mode here – almost as if Ken Loach had been let loose in Singapore in 1997 and located this family. As such, when we do come to a dramatic occurrence – and there is one particularly unnerving moment – it feels heightened and the viewer experiences the moment of drama as strongly as the characters. It’s an appropriate approach for a story of this nature, but is what also prevents the film being a more satisfying experience. We get to know these characters inside out yet never really see them progress or resolve their differences. Nevertheless, with four strong performances and a humble tone, Ilo Ilo has announced a new directing talent worth looking out for in the future.
Ilo Ilo is out in UK cinemas May 2nd
Words> Roy Swansborough