Reviews - Ilo Ilo
Reviewed By Chris Coombes
Set in Singapore 'Ilo Ilo', directed by Anthony Chen, tells the story of how a family of three – 10 year old Jiale and his parents - adapt to taking a Filipino maid, Teresa, into their somewhat claustrophobic apartment. Teresa is following in the footsteps of so many other impoverished Filipino women who end up in various parts of the world seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Teresa is made to suffer overt as well as subtle humiliation at the hands of this unhappy family that she finds herself supporting while she also washes their floors and does their laundry. Her passport is taken from her by her new employer, it is assumed that it's acceptable for her to share the 10 year old's bedroom, and she is made to eat separately from her hosts at a family party.
Teresa, for all her disadvantages and sorrows, gradually starts to form direct and helpful relationships with the members of her host family, each of whom has problems. Jiale is a troubled boy – largely ignored by his parents and dealing with the loss of his grandfather. Teck, Jiale's father has lost his job and is trying to keep this from his wife Hwee Leng who is pregnant and permanently tired, bad tempered and worried as she is, in fact, well aware that Teck has lost his job as a salesman. The story is set in the economic crash of the 1990's, and reflects well the gloom of that period.
There is some excellent acting in the film. We can't help but feel Teck's largely silent desperation about his circumstances and his fear for the future. The difficult, sticky relationship between Hwee Leng and her employee is beautifully nuanced. There are touching moments towards the end as we start to understand what the relationship with Teresa has meant to lonely, attention-seeking Jiale and how he begins to suffer when she is sacked from her job and forced to leave the family. It's good to be reminded of the modern realities of domestic workers and their employees when they are in situations such as Teresa's, and there were some powerful, if quiet, comments on how those relationships work – or fail to work.
In spite of all this though I found myself unable to really engage with the characters. Apart from Teresa I found them very unattractive and so couldn't empathise with their distress. I felt, as well, that there was something quite superficial about the treatment of the story and we lacked background to what we were witnessing. 'Ilo Ilo' was the winner of the coveted Caméra d'Or, awarded to first-time feature directors, at last year's Cannes Film Festival, so plenty of people rate it highly, but it wasn't the intriguing glimpse of the city-state that I was hoping for.
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