‘Ilo Ilo’ review: A snapshot in time

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'Ilo Ilo' review: Singaporean director Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo
Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo

Movie synopsis

Set during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, Ilo Ilo is a day-to-day drama following a Singaporean family who hires a Filipino live-in maid, Teresa, to take care of their household chores and their 10-year-old son Jia Le.

Ilo Ilo review in a nutshell

One of the best and most realistic Singaporean indie films.

Would I recommend you watch it?

Yes, especially if you’re a Singaporean. But even if you aren’t, it’s a snapshot into the ordinary lives of people who aren’t so different from you. It makes you think about how you treat those in your employ too.

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Or continue reading for a full review.

Full review of Ilo Ilo (with little to no spoilers)

Watched Ilo Ilo on Tuesday to see what the fuss is about. The theatre was packed with other like-minded people too — because I highly doubt that it would have gotten such a huge reception if it didn’t win the Camera d’Or at Cannes. It’s a subtle, introspective indie-ish drama: not the loud, brash comedies that typical Singaporean moviegoers look for in local films, judging from top-grossing Singaporean movies like Money Not Enough and Ah Boys to Men.

For me, it stands out (from other local movies) because it’s the very ordinary story of a middle-class Singaporean family, replicated accurately with natural acting and no forced dialogue. (Want to know what is “forced dialogue”? Watch every local drama on Channel 5 and Channel 8 and hear the way they speak.) The young actor playing the boy, especially, is very good at ignoring the camera and being “himself”. It’s a movie so ordinary, to the point of banality, that it could have been a snapshot in time of any family back during the Asian Financial Crisis. (The props and everything were very authentic to that decade, even down to the old-timey bookstore with tiled floors — I was half-wondering if the filmmakers didn’t actually shoot the movie back then.)

There is no particular fancy storytelling method, no climax or denouement; it is just a very natural progression of how things would flow, with no deus ex machina to save the day. There was one moment when it very nearly went there, and I was about to throw up my hands in disbelief, but thankfully, they veered away from that and even made it a very natural conclusion of the story. Who hasn’t dreamt that miracles will happen, we’ll win the lottery, and all will be made well again? Unfortunately, such things don’t happen in real life, as the boy in the film rightly, though disappointingly, finds out.

Chen Tian Wen (Teck), Yeo Yann Yann (Hwee Leng), Angeli Bayani (Terry) and Koh Jia Ler (Jia Le) in Ilo Ilo
Chen Tian Wen (Teck), Yeo Yann Yann (Hwee Leng), Angeli Bayani (Terry) and Koh Jia Ler (Jia Le) in Ilo Ilo

The film also humanises foreign maids in a way that most of us don’t bother to think about very much. (Sure, we may “know” that they are human beings and all that, but at the end of the day, even if we aren’t horrid to them, many of us still treat them as though they are invisible — unless we need something — or that their feelings aren’t worth considering. We see them, but we don’t actually think about them.) We see the maid getting angry with the boy after he bullies her, and warning him not to mess with her; slapping him for saying disrespectful and insensitive things about others; being curious and trying on her employer’s makeup; searching for ways to supplement her meagre income to support her child back home, including taking on a hairdressing job on the sidelines without the knowledge of her employers. These are things that people in the theatre gasped at, because they are our worst fears come to life — of our maids touching our things, perhaps abusing our children when we are not around, doing goodness-knows-what when we are out during the day.

And yet, in all these things, she’s merely being human, even with flaws. Can we blame her for being curious, even if it isn’t a polite thing to do? For doing anything to support her child? And it’s not as though her slapping the boy is unjustified — he needs to be disciplined for being rude and thoughtlessly cruel, and she is merely exercising her right as a human being to be displeased with the “rubbish” that he is saying, and his horrible behaviour. Above all, she does care for the boy, and if she becomes a substitute parent in the wake of the parents not actually being around, and the boy does become better behaved, perhaps it’s for the better. (The Mandarin title of the movie means “Daddy and Mummy are not at home.”) True, it should be left to the purview of the parents to discipline their child, and it’s far from me to say that I will allow strangers to hit my own children. But when the parents aren’t there, and aren’t doing their job, well, it feels good when someone else takes up the mantle, if it works. It’s like seeing spoilt kids on public transport screaming and misbehaving, and the people around wishing that someone will just smack them and shut them up.

Koh Jia Ler as Jia Le and Angeli Bayani as domestic helper Terry in Ilo Ilo
Koh Jia Ler as Jia Le and Angeli Bayani as domestic helper Terry in Ilo Ilo

And on the flip-side of things, it’s not as though the employer in the film (or many employers in real life) respects her privacy very much either. While they treat her fairly decently, the mother keeps her passport to prevent her from running away. She assumes that if something unpleasant happens — like the boy smoking a cigarette and throwing it into the toilet bowl (without flushing, that stupid boy!), causing it to be seen by the mother — it has to be the fault of the maid, and she did not hesitate to peep and pry at her personal belongings to uncover the “truth” either. And to us Singaporeans, it is perfectly normal behaviour. By subtly placing the facts in front of us, it exposes the discrepancies and dysfunctionality of our own behaviour that we don’t stop to think twice about. And yet, most of us won’t stop behaving like that either — just like how the boy may care for his chicks, which he gets as a birthday present, but still continues unabashedly to eat chicken with relish.

However, if you were to ask me why it won the Camera d’Or at Cannes? I really couldn’t tell you why. I liked it, because I related to it as a Singaporean; but to me, it wasn’t a particularly marvellous specimen of world cinema, and I doubt that the foreign judges awarded it the prize because they related to it as Singaporeans. They may, in fact, be shocked by the portrayal of some aspects of our culture that we feel are normal here, but are abhorrent in other countries — things like corporal punishment, or even the fact that a 10-year-old boy still needs help to bathe.

Then again, I didn’t watch all the other Camera d’Or films in competition, so I can’t judge. But deserving of its prize or not, it’s a very good local film, beautifully shot and understatedly told. If you’re a Singaporean, you will enjoy it. If you aren’t a Singaporean, here’s your glimpse into our middle-income lives.

Picture of a typical middle-class Singaporean family in the '90s
Picture of a typical middle-class Singaporean family in the ’90s

Where to watch Ilo Ilo in the U.S.

Streaming services: You can stream Ilo Ilo for free on Tubi TV, and if you have a U.S. public library card, you can stream it on Hoopla and Kanopy. It is not on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu or any other streaming services.

Rent/Buy: Get it on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Microsoft, FandangoNOW

Where to watch Ilo Ilo in Singapore

Streaming services: Ilo Ilo is on Catchplay (Singapore). It is not on Netflix Singapore or Amazon Prime Video.

Rent/Buy: Get it on iTunes, Catchplay (Singapore)

Where to watch Ilo Ilo in other countries

Please refer to my handy guide here on how to find and legally watch movies online, even if you’re outside the U.S.

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