Ilo Ilo: A Portrait of an Ordinary Singaporean Family in Adversity

Ilo Ilo: A Portrait of an Ordinary Singaporean Family in Adversity

By Singapore Armchair Critic

(Warning: spoilers ahead)

Although the name of the first Singapore film I watched in a cinema eludes me, the experience has endured: I still remember how enthralling and magical it was, to see on the silver screen familiar sights and scenes of Singapore, and to hear characters speaking like locals do.

This excitement induced by novelty, however, quickly fizzled out.

Since then, sadly, the Singapore feature film has more or less degenerated into formulaic facsimiles, like the surfeit of indistinguishable shopping malls that have sprung up in our heartlands. Take a local setting, cast familiar faces who can deliver lines in Singlish or a mix of languages and dialects, throw in the occasional anodyne snipe at the government (or a ghost or two) and, lo and behold, you have the ingredients for a top-grossing local film. Never mind the weak plot, banal jokes, and lackluster or over-the-top acting.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that you can’t find local elements in Anthony Chen’s award-winning debut feature film Ilo Ilo. On the contrary, Ilo Ilo has a realistic late 1990s’ Singapore setting painstakingly re-created under the keen supervision of Chen: his team visited some 500 HDB flats before finally locating one with the specific door grilles and flooring that he wanted.

But unlike other Singapore productions in which a pastiche of local elements is foregrounded and often supplants the story, those that permeate Ilo Ilo are subtly embedded to serve and strengthen the narrative, to the extent that a reviewer comments: “Except for the Tamagotchi toys Jia Le plays with, the late-’90s period background is de-emphasized.”

The late 1990s milieu may appear nondescript to an outsider but is fondly recognizable to a local who has lived through the period. Says a crew member, “Every tiny thing in Anthony’s films is thought through, nothing is accidental.”

From the ubiquitous stickers on the furniture and walls in the family’s flat, Yeo Yann Yann’s permed hairdo (styled according to a photo of Chen’s mother in the 90s) and oversized maternity dresses, the black and white Zaobao, the channel 8 news opening title, the yellow and black cabs, the bulky desktop computers in the dingy office where Yeo’s character works down to the design of the paper cups in a fast food outlet, the director’s obsession with realistic details has enhanced the authenticity of the story of a typical middle-class Singapore family floundering amid the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.-

Veterans Chen Tian Wen and Yeo Yann Yann play the working parents of Jiale, a real handful of a boy who has a knack for landing himself in trouble. When Jiale’s mother, who is expecting her second child, decides to hire a maid to keep an eye on the bratty boy, Teresa or Terry (played by Philippine thespian Angeli Bayani) finds herself thrown in at the deep end.

After a car accident and several run-ins, the initially stormy relationship between Jiale and Terry subsides and blossoms into a bond that is part friendship, part mother-child affection. At the same time, the family finds itself in increasingly dire financial straits. While Jiale’s mother is busy typing retrenchment letters and worrying about her own job, Jiale’s father lost tens of thousands of dollars dabbling in stocks and, eventually, his sales job.

The story may sound unremarkable, but it resonates with the viewer precisely because it could well be the story of any ordinary Singaporean in the late 1990s, during which thousands lost their jobs just like Chen Tian Wen’s character and the director’s father.

Anthony Chen’s brand of realism extends to his creation of the characters, whose flaws and imperfections make them whole, complex, and all the more appealing. Much credit goes to the apt cast, whose sublime acting fleshes out the four central characters on which the story hinges.

Chen Tian Wen delivers a persuasive performance as a stern yet loving father, a devoted husband, and a kind soul who never fails to show compassion to Terry even as his own financial troubles loom large. Keeping a stoic façade before his family and his problems under wraps, the quietly suffering man can only vent his frustrations through stealing a nightly smoke at the stairway of his flat.

First-time child actor Koh Jia Ler, chosen to play Jiale out of more than 8,000 students, is so natural he is a delight to watch. Jiale’s devotion to his grandfather (and possibly, caretaker) may explain his initial antagonism towards Terry, yet it doesn’t take long before the lonely boy embraces his new caregiver, friend and surrogate mother with fierce loyalty. Jiale’s sweet gestures to Terry betray another facet of his character that endears him to the audience despite his exasperating antics.

The predicament of the working mother is strikingly poignant in the film, thanks to the nuanced and arresting performance of Bayani and Yeo. The parallels between the two characters, if not obvious to the audience, is spelled out by Terry, who, in response to Jiale’s exclamation that she has left her twelve-month-old baby in somebody else’s care, retorts that his mum is also doing the same.

Much as Jiale treats Terry as his surrogate mother, Terry too, takes her charge as her surrogate child to whom she devotes her love and attention. As the bond between Jiale and Terry grows stronger, so do the insecurities of Jiale’s mum. Yeo, whose performance at the audition blew the director away, is incredibly convincing as a mother and wife who irks the audience with her constant henpecking and condescending attitude towards Terry, yet touches your heart as she waits, with forbearance, for her husband to break the bad news to her.

If the characters share a common trait, it is their tenacity in the face of adversity, be it Jiale’s father scrapping his car and working as a taxi driver, Jiale’s mother doing her job conscientiously despite her vexations, Terry moonlighting on her off-days to earn extra cash for her child, or Jiale making a last ditch attempt in the hope of retaining his beloved maid. The film’s stirring exploration of the human condition in hardship, I suspect, is what won over the jury and the audience who gave a 15-minute standing ovation at its premiere at Cannes.

Whether the prestigious accolade of Camera d’Or will translate into box office success for Ilo Ilo is yet to be known. But with box office success, says director Anthony Chen,“…investors will now see that not all films which do the film festival circuit are boring. Enough funding can open many doors for those who dream of making movies.”

Now that is reason enough for you to show your support for Ilo Ilo when it opens on 29 August. But if you are still hesitant, consider Kit Chan’s eloquent plea in her recent commentary “Home, surely, starts with what is made in Singapore”:

I call on all Singaporeans to support and to nurture all our emerging and mature creative local talents, so that they may continue to tell the Singapore story through song, books, poems, films, food, beautiful clothes and furniture, and all those comforting things for living and for the soul. Help them to realise their dreams even as we realise our collective dreams through them.


Official trailer:

For short films by Anthony Chen, go to Viddsee.


Singapore Armchair Critic for The Online Citizen.

The author blogs at

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