September 11, 2014
Ilo Ilo – Singapore, 2013
In the beginning of Anthony Chen’s moving film Ilo Ilo, a young boy named Jiale (Jiale Koh) pretends his principal injured him in order to get out of trouble. The scene reminded me of the scene in Fight Club in which Edward Norton beats himself up in order to frame his boss. I mention this because while there’s nothing in the film to suggest that Jiale has seen Fight Club, it wouldn’t surprise me. This is a family swamped with work and dealing with so much stress that it is hard to imagine them having either the energy or the time to completely monitor what their child is watching.
The film is set in Singapore during the economic crisis of 1997. Had it been set in the late 1920s, the late 1970s, or the present day, it would still have worked, for the issues it tackles are both timely and timeless. In the film, the family matriarch, Hwee Leng Lim (Yan Yan Yeo), works for a company that seems to be letting people go at a record pace, and there’s no telling just who the next one will be. Making matters worse, early in the film, the woman’s husband, Teck (Tian Wen Chen), loses his job as a salesman after a rather disastrous sales pitch. And if that wasn’t stressful enough, the family is expecting a new addition soon. They clearly need help, especially given Jiale’s recent misdeeds, so Hwee Leng and Teck do the only thing they can think of: they hire a maid named Teresa from the Philippines. Under different circumstances, this is nothing out of the ordinary, simple the act of an affluent family whose jobs demand they be in other places. For this family, however, it seems like an act of desperation, an acknowledgement that they are powerless to solve their problems alone.
The film includes some ugly truths concerning the plight of migrant workers in Singapore. Shortly before Teresa’s arrival, we watch as Hwee Leng hides her valuables in a lock box, reflecting the stereotypes that some employers have of domestic help from abroad. Upon Teresa’s arrival, Hwee Leng upholds that most horrendous of employer practices: She demands Teresa’s passport – “In case she tries to run away,” she explains. The film also hints at the demands that are often made of people in Teresa’s unenviable position: being on the job 24-7, having very few days off, and being legally forbidden to supplement their incomes with second jobs. Their well-being is essentially in the hands of their employer, and there are suggestions that some employers use this to their advantage. Teresa isn’t even given her own room; instead, she sleeps on a pull-out attached to Jiale’s bed.
Ilo Ilo could easily have focused exclusively on the ebb and flow of Teresa’s relationship with Jiale, and the film would likely have worked rather well with such a limited center. However, Chen, who both directed and wrote the screenplay, has the good sense to extend the film’s scope. Not only is it about the family, but it also touches on the impact that economics can have on both society and a family in trouble. In one scene, Teresa is outside when a man suddenly jumps to his death. I half-expected the victim to be Teck, and when it wasn’t, I actually became worried that the next one would be. Teresa herself is a mother, and only economics would drive someone as decent as her to seek employment so far away from her child. Key moments in the film demonstrate the strain that she feels being so far away from her infant son. In fact, as Teresa and Jiale grow closer, she becomes his surrogate mother and he her surrogate son. At one point, Jiale even remarks that he prefers Teresa’s cooking, and to say Hwee Leng doesn’t take it well would be an understatement.
Situations like these are never easy, and when Hwee Leng sees the way Jiale responds to Teresa, she responds in the only way she knows how – by issuing commands and reminding Teresa of her place in the household. In the wrong hands, this could easily cause viewers to have a negative impression of Hwee Leng, but Chen take great pains to present a complete picture of her. In his capable hands, viewers are able to see her as a work in progress and to see in her a working woman struggling to do the best for her family and coming up short. They also see the signs of a mother in crisis, of someone just barely holding it all together. Indeed, I felt a great deal of empathy for her. Credit for this also goes to Yeo, who moves through the film as would someone whose world could collapse at any moment – tense and morose, always on the verge of anger.
The film also devotes screen time to Teck’s quest for a new job. In one particular telling scene at a birthday party for his mother, he appears to boast of his extraordinary ability to sell things. His family members nod in polite agreement, never picking up that the remark was an indirect cry for help. Watching the father, I was reminded of just how important a job is to a man and just how easily one can fall apart without one.
The film sheds lights on the things we do to make ourselves feel that we have a little more control over our lives than we really do. For Teck, finding that control means investing heavily in the stock market, for Hwee Leng, it means attending a self-help workshop and taking its overly cliché message about hope coming from within a little too much to heart, and for Jiale, it means collecting lottery results and studying them obsessively for patterns and repetition. All of these actions are attempts to establish a semblance of order in a world that is often out of our control. Even the hiring of a maid is an attempt to establish control, the hope being that the maid will be the one who finally gets the family troublemaker to walk the straight and narrow path
Like many of my favorite movies, Ilo Ilo is an incomplete story. It is a chapter in the lives of this family, and as this chapter ends, another one, one with challenges that will forever remain unseen, begins. A less honest film would wrap things up, fashioning each problem with some colorful ribbon and a beautiful red bow, as if life were a riddle with hardly any complexities at all. This film is more honest than that. It does not pretend to have an answer to the problems that it depicts, and it is an open question as to whether Jiale has learned the lessons that Teresa worked so feverishly to impart to him. However, what the film has demonstrated is that what can sustain people is the support of those around them, be they parents or strangers that eventually become close friends. There’s even a telling moment in which Hwee Leng conveys her appreciation to Teresa in the only way she knows how to – without words. In that moment, we see that a lesson has been learned. It’s a start. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Asia; It will be released on DVD in the United States on September 16, 2014)
*Ilo Ilo is in Chinese, English, and Filipino with English subtitles.
*The film won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay at the 2013 Golden Horse Film Festival.