An earlier interview with Award winning local film maker, Anthony Chen on his film, “Ilo Ilo”
Why did you choose the topic that your film was based on?
When I graduated in 2010 from my masters at the national film and television school in the UK, I knew I wanted to do my first full life film. And at that time I was wondering what should I work on, what’s the story that I should be making. And of course, when you’re in your mid twenties, your childhood comes back to haunt you.
When I was growing up, we had a domestic helper, a Filipino maid. Her name was Theresa and called her Auntie Terry and she actually share the exact same name as the helper in the film. She was with us for 8 years, she left when I was 12 years old. I think for over 16, 17 years, we lost contact completely. We didn’t meet again but as I said in your mid twenties, your childhood comes back to haunt you and memories of her started flooding in of what it was like growing up and I realized that I saw things differently. When you’re growing up, you are probably more naive, being a child is more innocent, you’re thinking of fighting and playing most of the time. But now looking back, you realize that it is not as simple the ways thing are. Like there is jealously between your mother and the maid, that there is tension brewing between your parents and within the dynamics the maid and the kids and all that. You can feel that things are not as simple as it is when I relook at the past.
So I was very intrigued by that, so I wanted to explore that further and of course the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how brutal the system is, I don’t think the system can be changed or needs to be changed but unfortunately it is what it is especially in Asia economies like Singapore, like Hong Kong. Where you invite a stranger to your home and spend time with your family, with your kids. After a certain time, they almost become part of the family but what is so cruel and brutal is when at the time where circumstances has changed, the kids have grown up or you are moving house or you ran out of money or you think its an excess. You decide “let’s send home the maid”.
What is so brutal is usually because the adults make those decisions but the kids are the ones that have really built that kind of bond with this foreigner who almost become part of the family. Especially they are there for long enough. Because most of the time, the parents don’t know the helper well at all as they are usually at work. It’s the kids who spend the most time with the helpers so I wanted to explore that which became the starting point for the film I guess.
What challenges did you face for the production or prior to the production?
In terms of funding for the film, MDA and Singapore Film Commission came very early because obviously they supported a lot of my short films. I would say I have been nurtured and supported through that system. And in fact, my career was literally supported through that system. So they came in support very easily because I have a track record in my other short films that won in Canne and then offered in Berlin. I think they took a leap of faith and they believed in what I was doing. We had Ngee Ann Poly that came on board, it was the first time that a school has actually backed an alumni in that sort of way but I was very moved as well because they believed in what I could do. It’s really finding the other bits of the money, we didn’t actually make this for a lot of money. It wasn’t a five, one million sort of budget, it was more like a 5, 6 hundred thousand sort of budget.
There were other small pots of money that we needed to find and of course it was difficult because if you were to think of subject, it is very easy to brush it off as oh who wants to watch a film about a Filipino maid and then Singapore being like “it’s so boring” and its being not commercial, it’s not a big comedy, it’s not a horror film. It doesn’t fall into the genre that we know very well that usually take the box offices. But it is a lot of good will and a lot of belief, leap of faith that people such as Leong Sze Hian. And we have a few individuals that also took a leap of faith without questioning it, exactly how much would they earn. And I moved by that, I think this film was made above every thing else with a lot of goodwill and a lot of belief. I would use the word ‘belief” because people believed that I am do something very sincere and honest and hopefully, it will have its results.
Casting was a huge challenge, the lead character in the film is a ten year old boy. He is a bit older in real life but I wanted a very very naturalistic performance from all my actors. In fact we spent ten months going to 21 primary schools, and we looked over 8,000 children and out of those we auditioned 2,000 of them. Eventually 150 of these children actually made it to my workshop and I conducted like 100 hours of workshop over 6 months during weekends before we were very sure that this is the kid that we want to cast.
So it was very laborious… This whole project is literally a labour of love. For both me and the actors/actress as well. I flew to the Philippines, we didn’t have much budget so I took budget airline went over for a weekend. Before that I had my Filipino film maker friend who sent the word out, so I was auditioning. Actually, it sounded very dodgy as we were doing it because there were 30,40 actresses in Philippines and we are doing it in my hotel room. So it was really dodgy having women going in and out of the hotel room like the whole day, for the whole few days. So we casted our Filipino actress from there, it was a lot of hard work even for the actors/actress. Even though Yeo Yan Yan and Chen Tian Wen, they are known in Singapore. I have met a lot of other actors, I scoured the whole of Singapore, current existing actors, theater actors, those that are already retired from acting before I made those choices and locked down my characters.
And of course, the film was set in 1997 and we all know how Singapore have transformed and modernized so rapidly that it is impossible for me to find the right locations. Alot of locations was actually from my memories, from photos of my childhood. So there were times where we were looking for places and we couldn’t find that, in fact the 5 room flat that the family is living in was the exact same layout I wanted, the flat that I was living in when I was growing up. So we went to the HDB database and we fished out the model of the flat that was built in the 80s. We went all over Singapore, knocking on doors, going to blocks. I think we have looked at hundreds of blocks, knocked like on tens of thousands of doors before we found a flat that we got.
It was a lot of hard work just for the flat not including me driving around Tuas knocking on doors of different offices and factories to get spaces and textures that are relevant and authentic to the period. It is a good thing but being the nostalgic filmmaker, Singapore has really changed so much. Even though the film is in 1997, a lot of people would say “oh, its not very far away. I’m sure you can just cheat it as now and then just film it”, but it is 16 years ago. This is a period film we are not talking about.
I had no idea over how much effort you have put into this film’s production!!!
This is why I think you will read it as just a family drama, a simple film shouldn’t be hard to make. But it really is 3 years in the making, it’s a lot of hard work. Not just myself, I couldn’t have made it myself. With the cast, with the crew, with everyone putting in so much to make things happen.
Given the success your film has garnered, many aspiring film makers would probably take you as a role model. Any advice for them to take up?
I think my biggest advice really is that whatever industry especially in film, you really need to be driven by passion, you really need to love cinema. I think that is very important that you love it so much that you would almost die for it.
It is becoming so trendy now, when I went to a film school in Singapore which is Ngee Ann Polytechnic because that was the only choice, there was only one film school. Now you have Laselle, you have NYU, you have video production at ITE, you know its like everywhere. But its so trendy now to be involved in film or in the media industry because you think about the glamour, you think about the glitz but behind all that is a lot of hard work, there is a lot of blood, a lot of sweat, and a lot of tears. Instead of giving advice, my question to young film makers would be, you have to ask yourself, are you really in love with film making or in love in directing, in wanting to make films or in love with the idea of being a film director, being a film maker?
Makes a lot of difference isn’t it?
It makes a lot of difference. I think alot of people are in love with the idea of being a filmmaker and not really because they love cinema. I think that’s is what gives you longevity and keeps you going and keep you pushing on for the many years, because it is not as simple as it is. It is a lot of hard work, it is a very audacious journey, it is a very lonely journey sometimes. And you really need to know that it is cinema that you love, it is films that you love, that is why you are in it.
Are you by any chance planning for a second film?
If you are talking about second feature film, I have ideas buzzing in my head. As I am based between UK and Singapore, there are one or two projects I developing here (London), there are something else I am thinking of in Singapore. It is still very early days, so I wouldn’t want to vocalize those thoughts. It took me 3 years to come up with the film, so hopefully the next one would be much shorter. It will take some time for me to come up with something more tangible and concrete.
What do you think will be the reception of the film by Singaporeans in Singapore?
I think this film is a very honest and sincere film, it was made from the heart. I am almost so sure that Singaporeans will see a bit of themselves or the people around them in the film. They can relate with the people in the film and the scenario. I don’t think people should go to see the film because it won a film. I think people should try and embrace it because I am quite sure that people will be moved as it is such a Singaporean subject, it is a very simple film that is about a Singaporean family. But that has moved so many people to tears miles away in Canne and France, and the film has been sold to so many countries, US, UK, to France, to Switzerland, Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong. When all these distributors, all these audiences everywhere else feel so strongly about this film. I am quite sure it will strike accord when the subject is so much closer to home. So I hope that they will be able to support the film, NOT just because the film won an award. I think its a honest film telling an universal story of our shared experiences.[divide]
The film will be released in Singapore cinemas on 29th August. Do look out for it!