It was well worth the awkwardness of trying not to ask for a ticket to ‘Allo ‘Allo to see this little gem from Singaporean first-time director Anthony Chen. A simple tale of a family trying to keep themselves afloat during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, it’s full of deft humour and unspoken tragedy.
Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) is pregnant with her second child – her first, Jiale (a wonderful Koh Jia Ler), is ten and going through an uncontrollable phase, in trouble at school and throwing tantrums at home. Some of his behaviour stems from the recent loss of his grandfather, who he shared a room with, but it’s also a reaction to the undercurrent of stress at home. His father, Teck (Chen Tianwen), has lost his job but is hiding this from his domineering wife. Hwee Leng is spending her days writing severance letters for her colleagues, never sure if she’s going to be next.
Tensions rise even more when the family hire a Filipino maid, Teresa (Angeli Bayani), who has her own troubles having left a baby behind in the Philippines and who has some unexplained scars on her wrists. She is instantly set upon by Jiale and the fact that she has to sleep in his grandfather’s old bed doesn’t help matters. The four step around each other awkwardly, with occasional outbursts of rage, but underneath it’s clear there is love and respect here and a family that ultimately has everything it needs to survive.
I loved Ilo Ilo, it’s a gentle and moving film that reflects the pressure cooker of regular family life. Chen won the Camera D’Or at Cannes for this debut and it’s not hard to see why – it will be exciting to see what he does next.