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November 11, 2013

Starz Denver Film Festival 2013 - Ilo Ilo

ilo ilo poster.jpg

Anthony Chen - 2013
Film Movement

Anthony Chen's debut feature might be said to be about the messes men make, and the women who clean up after them. It is also about how the Southeast Asian economic crisis of 1997 affected one Singaporean family.

Most of the story is centered on Jiale, an insolent ten year old boy, in trouble at school with teachers and fellow students. His discipline problems cause his very pregnant mother to frequently leave her job doing clerical work at a shipping office. Jiale's father's job as a salesman is on the line, adding to family tensions. Living in a small apartment, the place gets smaller with the addition of a Filipino maid, Teresa, who also has to share a bedroom with Jiale.

Jiale's rebellious streak is used to get Teresa in trouble with his mother. An accident turns the relationship around for the boy and the maid.

There is a desperation for money. Jiale's father loses money on the stock market, and after losing his sales job can only find work as a security guard. Jiale's seemingly more pragmatic mother falls for a get rich quick scheme. Jiale keeps tabs on lottery numbers. Teresa, making money for her family in the Philippines by working in Singapore, puts her job and legal status on the line by taking a job as a hair dresser on her days off.

There are several culturally specific moments throughout the film, Buddhist funerals, and the passing of red envelopes as gifts, as well as how Catholicism is a part of Filipino life. On a more universal level, this is the story about a family keeping itself together in the face of external obstacles, as well as the petty annoyances and bigger issues that can potentially drive them apart.

Chen's film is also a critique of an economic system where Jiale's parents both are working in order to maintain something like a middle class existence, including tuition of Jiale's school, but also have to hire a maid to help look after Jiale. At the same time, Teresa has to leave her own family, including an infant, to provide greater financial support than had she remained in the Philippines. In spite of the financial unraveling that effects everyone, the film ends on a quietly optimistic note.

The title refers to a Filipino province. The story is to some degree autobiographical. While Singaporean film does not get the same kind of attention as given to some other Asian countries, it is notable that Chen won last May at Cannes for his first feature, and that Ilo Ilo is Singapore's entry for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 11, 2013 07:09 AM