Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ilo Ilo (Ba Ma Bu Zai Jia)

ILO ILO (Ba Ma Bu Zai Jia)     B-         
Singapore  (99 mi)  2013 d:  Anthony Chen         Official site

Awarded the Camera D’Or at Cannes for Best First Feature, where it reportedly received a fifteen-minute standing ovation, this is the first Singapore film to ever win a major award at Cannes, while several years earlier Chen was awarded a Special Mention prize for one of his short features.  Chen also won the illustrious 50th Taipei Golden Horse Award for Best Feature Film, Best New Director, and Best Original Screenplay, beating out prestigious Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke’s 2013 Top Ten List #3 A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding), one of the best films of the year in two major categories, so this film comes to America with plenty of accolades.  Chen graduated from the National Film and Television School based in the Beaconsfield Film Studios in Great Britain in 2010, where one of his instructors was Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski.  Ironically Pawlikowski received the London Film Festival award for Best Film in 2013 with Ida (2013) while Chen won the Sutherland Prize for the Best First Film.  Heralded as one of the best films to come out of Singapore, though I much prefer Eric Khoo’s more starkly unusual BE WITH ME (2005), this was written, directed, and produced by Chen, a film that drew on his own childhood experience, inspired by a Filipino maid that worked for his family in Singapore, but despite an honest and unpretentious style, the film is overly predictable and cliché ridden throughout, copying from far too many outside sources, lacking originality or any profound underlying complexity, where it actually recalls the more creatively inspired Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret’s Israeli film Jellyfish (Meduzot) (2007) that similarly won the Camera D’Or at Cannes in 2007.  Both films feature a Filipino maid/nanny living abroad who is forced by economic circumstances to take care of other people’s family while their own children are looked after by family back home.  The theme is also repeated in Lucas Moodysson’s MAMMOTH (2009), showing how a 7-year old grows closer to the Filipino nanny than her own emotionally distant parents, while a similar theme is expressed with a Mexican nanny in one of the sections of BABEL (2006).  In each, the plight is the same as millions of service workers are forced to leave their families and countries of origin in order to earn an income that can support them all, always dreaming that this sacrifice will make a difference, where the distance creates heartbreaking circumstances when tragedy strikes at home, as they are powerless to do anything about it.  To this one could add personal experiences of traveling through various establishments on the East coast all the way up through Maine, where Jamaicans seem to monopolize the service industry of housekeepers, all of them separated from their families back home, but financial circumstances create this dire necessity, where their work visas don’t allow full-time work, which means they are excluded from receiving health benefits, while their schedules and worksites can be changed at any time, creating built-in pressures and anxieties despite working in this country for over 20 years.

ILO ILO follows the Edward Yang template, especially YI YI (2000, though without the novelesque scope), in attempting to create a powerful family drama based upon a series of intimate moments, where the secret is creating realistic characters in a natural setting, where the use of meticulous detail is a key ingredient.  This follows a similar pattern established in Boo Junfeng’s film SANDCASTLE (2010), where a Singapore director opened up his nation’s history to public scrutiny, which felt overtly modeled after the historical reflections of Hou Hsiao-hsien, who, it turns out, was one of the director’s teachers at the Asian Film Academy.  While these are both inspirational Asian directors, they have a unique film aesthetic that is not easily copied due to the highly personal nature of their filmmaking.  Nonetheless, Chen attempts to tell his own personal tale set against the historical backdrop of Asia’s 1997 financial crisis, where the father Teck (Chen Tian Wen) is a plastics salesman while his pregnant wife Hwee (Yeo Yann Yann, pregnant in real life, and winner of the Golden Horse Award for Best Supporting Actress) is part of a secretary pool for a large corporation.  This leaves their dysfunctional 10-year old son Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) unsupervised for large periods of time, becoming a Macaulay Culkin HOME ALONE (1990) nightmare, a perennial headache for both the school and the family, as he can’t stay out of trouble, forcing the family to hire a nanny Teresa (Angeli Bayani), who has come to Singapore from the Philippines leaving her own infant son behind.  Angry that he has to share his room, Jiale hates everything about her from the beginning, where she becomes Auntie Terry who feeds and bathes and dresses him, where she is otherwise attentive in every conceivable way, but he refuses to listen to her, avoids her at all costs, runs away every chance he gets, especially when she comes to pick him up after school, and continually jeopardizes Teresa’s job with neverending mischief, where she’s often forced to take the blame for his unruly behavior.  Most of the action takes place at the same apartment complex or Jiale’s school during an era when electronic gadgets were all the rage, like the Tamagochi game that remains glued to Jiale’s hand, and the everpresent Sony Walkman that is plugged into everyone’s ears, reminding us of a time before Facebook when people did not need to be connected online all the time.  Perhaps most striking is an incident when a man throws himself off the roof of their apartment complex, a jarring reminder of the dire impact of the tanking economy. 

Taking a page out of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s TOKYO SONATA (2008), and before that Laurent Cantet’s TIME OUT (2001), the father loses his job but fails to mention this to the family, continuing to leave the house every morning in his daily routine while he explores a series of temporary jobs, where shame and humiliation play into this, where we see him scrubbing his own clothes by hand, refusing to allow Terry to help, as she’d otherwise discover a night watchman’s uniform.  While Jiale plainly doesn’t receive the kind of attention he needs from his mostly absent parents, the only way he knows how to make sure they’re involved is to defiantly act up, by getting into constant trouble, where the school calls Hwee at her job as she’s typing out termination letters for staff at her job, which quickly downsizes in ever increasing numbers.  But when the school gets ready to expel him for punching another kid, and neither parent can be found, it’s Auntie Terry who shows up pleading his case before the principal.  A fascination with the lottery, of all things, gets him out of the school jam, as Jiale’s detailed scrapbook of winning numbers allows him to forecast winners with some degree of accuracy, something his teacher is able to take full advantage of.  Hwee’s desperate turn to a self-help scam seems like a blatant reference to the mother’s supposedly bogus spiritual regeneration from a Zen mountain retreat in YI YI.  As might be expected, Jiale slowly warms to his nanny, where their relationship becomes the primary focus of the film, as after all, she’s the one who’s around the most, who provides real affection, and has his best interests at heart, while he actually prefers her cooking to his mom’s anyway, so they eventually become fast friends.  This mutual fascination catches the eye of his mother, feeling left out and neglected herself, especially as she enters the latter stages of pregnancy, where things only deteriorate when she discovers the full extent of her husband’s deceit, where their resources are depleted.  No longer able to afford the luxury of her services, Terry regrettably must return back home to the Philippines, a move that plainly effects Jiale like no other, turning this sweet and slightly sentimentalized film into something of a heartbreaking tearjerker.  Somewhat of a mix between commercial and arthouse fare, the rhythm of the film is established by the accumulation of daily activities, an observational character study combined with an eye toward ordinary everyday experiences, all set within a nation’s denial of overwhelming evidence leading to a financial collapse, necessitating a new society with different requirements and expectations.  The film's title, as it turns out, comes from Teresa’s home province in the Philippines. In praising the film on awards night in Cannes, a jury headed by Agnès Varda said:  “This film didn't have any music – and after being assaulted by overblown musical scores in so many pictures, that alone was a welcome sign of finesse and sensitivity.”


  1. That jury statement is simply incredible. What were Varda - who I appreciate very much - and her peers thinking? Apparently, they weren't. Great review (for a film I'll propably never get a chance to see).

  2. Have to agree with you there Anton, as I was genuinely surprised at all the accolades for this movie (15-minute standing ovation?), as it's sweet and tender, but not particularly original, which I thought was the point in handing out awards.