Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ilo Ilo

I posted my last real review on September 22, 2012.

{Insert awkward silence here.}

I could get into the how’s and the why’s of what has been so utterly all-consuming as to cause a 13-month abandonment of this little space of the Internet that I call my own—believe me, it’s been quite the year.  However, I distinctly recall insisting, in my very first entry, that Reel Simple would be “a treasure trove of cinematic reflection,” not Anisha’s Life Chronicles That Nobody Really Wants to Read. So in the spirit of that, allow me to pare my current situation down to its bare bones: I have recently tied the proverbial knot with a man entirely too good for me.* With the sleepless nights of planning an Indian wedding (really, a full-time job in itself) and a glorious honeymoon behind me, I am ready to buckle down and get back to work.

Part of said honeymoon had us touching down in Singapore, where I realized that for all my love for world cinema, I’ve never seen a Singaporean movie. Determined to change that, I dragged The Husband (as he will be referred to in any and all posts hereafter) to the nearest theater to catch Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo. Impressed by its unexpected Camera d’Or win at Cannes this year, I figured Chen’s debut feature was as good a choice as any for my introduction to Singapore’s locally-grown cinema.

Teetering on the edge of 1997’s Asian Financial Crisis, Ilo Ilo employs a zoom lens on one particular middle-class Singaporean family plagued as much by its internal tensions as by its dismal external climate. 

Insolent and unruly, young Jiale’s (Koh Jia Ler) wayward antics at school and at home are the bane of his parents’ existence. Overworked, frustrated, and now expecting their second child, they decide to call for reinforcement in the form of Teresita (Angeli Bayani)—Auntie Terry--a timid 20-something Filipino maid who, like her countless fellow domestic workers, seeks employment in Singapore to provide for her family back home. Jiale wastes no time in making her a new target for his mischief; but as soft-spoken as Terry is, she quickly makes clear that she refuses to be the pint-sized bully’s victim.

The stage is therefore set for an unconventional yet effective rapport, Terry falling somewhere in between “maternal figure” and “friend” as Jiale begins to develop both respect and fondness for her. Yet, while the understanding between them grows, their surrounding tensions build further as the father, Teck, struggles to keep his recent unemployment a secret from his domineering wife, Hwee Leng, or as Hwee Leng’s jealousy of Terry’s ability to connect with her son mounts.

With no discernible climax, exceptionally low-key performances, and zero stylistic excess, the almost-stubborn commitment to realism may come dangerously close to rendering the plot too ordinary for some audiences. However, Ilo Ilo’s appeal stems from the fact that it is inspired by Chen’s childhood experiences with his own Auntie Terry. The film may be set at the cusp of a region’s fiscal downturn, but it is disinterested in making a grand statement on the state of Singaporean society, politics or economy in the late 1990s.  Instead, its semi-autobiographical framework explains the smaller scale of its narrative, and allows it to take on an observational, not argumentative, tone.

The biggest advantage of Ilo Ilo’s decidedly minimalist approach is its similarly organic treatment of its characters, enabling greater scope for their authenticity. It’s easy to disapprove of Hwee Leng’s hostility towards Terry and dictatorial power over her husband, but equally instinctive to root for her when, resentful of her son’s camaraderie with the maid, she makes her own attempts to forge a bond with him. While Teck’s resigned acquiescence to his wife is aggravating to watch, we still hope she doesn’t discover his habit of sneaking cigarettes outside the home.  Jiale largely comes across as an insufferable brat, but the moments in which he displays unexpected compassion for Terry quickly compensate for his previous misbehavior. Even Terry, for all of her patience and dignity, is not hoisted onto a pedestal as the family’s “savior;” rather than transforming Jiale into the epitome of obedience, she has merely connected with him in a way no other adult in his life has even tried.

The characters are thus neither saints nor demons; whether this is a testament to the actors’ performances or to Chen’s nuanced character development through his writing, it is this humanization that forms the core of the film’s ultimate emotional impact. Spared of the pressure to choose any one person as morally superior over another, even relieved from the need to put ourselves in their shoes, we can accept them for who they are: a household of naturally flawed individuals, simply straining to make personal and financial ends meet. Neither preachy nor judgmental, sprinkled with moments that highlight the humor in everyday life, and leaving an impression of surprising poignancy, Chen’s story manages to capture our hearts with the very banality that could have been its downfall, making Ilo Ilo far from ordinary.

*Shhhhh. I don’t think he’s caught on yet J