Starring: Yann Yann Yeo, Tian Wen Chen, Angeli Bayani
In Singapore in 1997, the middle class Lim family employ a Filipino woman called Terry (Bayani) as their maid and to look after their ill behaved son Jialer (Jialer Koh). Though Jialer plays up even more when in the care of Terry, the two of them eventually form a bond which only serves to expose the cracks in the family’s already troubled lives, which are then only exacerbated by the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
For me a film can explore very familiar themes, but if it provides us with genuine emotional investment in the characters then it is not so relevant how perhaps contrived or clichéd the narrative is. Well that is exactly what Ilo Ilo does, making for a very engaging and involving drama. The narrative focuses solely on the lives of these four characters and their very real and relatable situation and problems, emerging all the more involving for it. This is all enhanced by the naturalistic and often quite subtle approach that makes the occasional clichés and contrivances more than forgivable.
From the off we are thrown into the lives of these characters, with minimal exposition we are only given the basics of their individual situations. However this is enough as it provides context to very real and relatable needs of all four characters and allows the narrative to spend more time on dealing with what happens to the family and Terry. What happens to the characters may not be anything new that hasn’t been explored before, but writer / director Anthony Chen skilfully avoids lazy writing when dealing with the narrative’s more emotional scenes that make them all the more powerful for it. The characters are both the victims of circumstance such as the 1997 Asian financial crisis, but they are also victims of their own individual and very human flaws and emotions.
Ilo Ilo is a film that you get more involved with as the narrative develops and by the end is a truly emotionally involving experience. What is most impressive is that Anthony Chen makes sure that his characters are consistent, and it is this that for me makes Ilo Ilo so emotionally satisfying as a drama. I of course do not want to give anything away, but one of the film’s closing scenes is all more the powerful for the fact it remains consistent with the characters involved. It is Chen’s skilful avoidance of the lazy clichés or schmaltzy dialogue that so many mainstream Western films seem happy to embrace, completely undermining any emotional involvement, which makes Ilo Ilo as engaging as it is.
Ilo Ilo is not only a superbly written film, but also is superbly and expertly shot, feeling very cinematic. Meanwhile the entire cast give performances that are naturalistic, but feel all the more raw and powerful for it. Ilo Ilo is not a film of protagonists and antagonists, but just a drama about everyday people going about very real everyday struggles, and Anthony Chen deserves full credit for making sure Ilo Ilo always feels that way for its entire narrative.
Raw, powerful and emotionally involving; Ilo Ilo is a wonderfully written and acted human drama that demonstrates how powerful and emotionally complex a very human story that seems so simple on the surface can actually be when told in the appropriate way.