DIR: Anthony Chen • WRI: Steph Green, Ailbhe Keogan • PRO: Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Tian Wen Chen • DOP: Benoit Soler • ED: Hoping Chen, Joanne Cheong • CAST: Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani Angeli Bayani, Tian Wen Chen Tian Wen Chen, Yann Yann Yeo
Ilo Ilo is the feature debut of Singaporean director Anthony Chen, which this week sees its release after a lengthy festival tour during which, amongst many other prestigious awards, it picked up the Camera d’Or 2013, the coveted cinematography prize at Cannes. It is a claustrophobic family drama bearing all the hallmarks of high-brow Asian cinema. It almost dares you to dislike it that you might stand out from the critical mass and, given the minimal number of non-cinephile audience members this screens to, that is a dare likely to be left undone. This is a difficult film to dislike.
Set during a 1990s financial meltdown in Singapore (a detail of the cultural context never divulged onscreen but in the programmes that accompany all the films at the type of cinema this will screen at), Ilo Ilo chronicles what seems like a year in the lives of a family of three and their newly employed Filipino maid, examining in particular the bond she develops with their already unruly son and the further strain her presence as a stranger puts on the family’s already weathering ties as a unit. Phew.
The time and place of the story are so specific that one imagines Chen opted for this smaller canvas with a view to developing larger themes. The homely chaos of the family residence recalls the suburban settings of 1980s Spielberg while Chen’s stalking close-ups hardly allow anyone a moment alone. Indeed, if the works of Ozu, with which this piece of Asian cinema has inevitably drawn comparisons, drew their emotional frameworks from long, drawn-out shots in which emotions might organically develop, here Chen’s often hand-held lens makes sure not to miss a moment, seeming to note that these suburbanites give mere moments in which thoughts and feelings traverse the frame, raw and unprocessed like flaky sugar-cane, before regaining the facade appropriate to their social station. Indeed, the saving of face, both financially and socially, play into the story in significant scenes, perhaps consciously riffing on wider global themes of international governments’ reluctance to declare bankruptcy. As such, Yeo Yann Yann’s growing animosity as the mother toward Teresa, the new housekeeper, as the Filipinos maid’s friendship with her son deepens, is jarringly easy to empathise with as it is with one’s domestic working class losing out on menial work to foreign nationals, more willing to do it for less than return home to a lesser life.
All the acting here is superb, with child actor Koh Jia Ler in particular managing to simultaneously yank our heartstrings and be as much of a shit as Game of Thrones’ Joffrey. The plot here is entirely predictable but as with Ozu’s family dramas the real meat is in the film’s visual aesthetic and cultural context, at once captured most intensely during a scene where Teresa witnesses a financial crisis-related suicide with all the suddenness of an Alfonso Cuaron action sequence and Chen captures her jaded shock by shooting her from low angles through light-heavy filters. Overall, this is every frame the picture one looks for in attending a matinee art-house screening in the IFI and the polar opposite of an IMAX-depicted helicopter flash. Subtlety is the name of the game and any tension is strictly emotionally driven but in this instance that tension is gripping and potent in the same league as Blue is the Warmest Colour, if not quite the same ballpark. Certainly worth the 90 minutes of any ardent cinema-goer worth their salt.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Ilo Ilo is released on 2nd May 2014