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Singaporean 'Ilo Ilo' Is An Honest Family Drama Against A Backdrop Of Economic Turmoil

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The debut feature from Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen, Ilo Ilo, was a surprise winner of Best Picture in Taiwan's Oscars equivalent, the Golden Horse Awards, this past November. Stacked up against heavyweight filmmakers in Chinese-language cinema and titles that appeared on many year-end top 10 lists worldwide (including ours), Ilo Ilo was a film of far more modest pedigree and scope. A small family drama set against the backdrop of the 1997 East Asian financial crisis, the film is focused on the relationship between 12-year-old Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) and Teresa (Angeli Bayani), the Filipino maid Jiale's parents hire to care for him while they work day jobs and with another child on the way. The film's Chinese title is literally translated to "father and mother are not home," which is an experience that Jiale shares with children from Chinese families worldwide when they come home from school.

Ilo Ilo is full of anxieties from each member of the quartet that is the core of the film. Jiale's mother Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) works a menial administrative job at an office where layoffs happen on a daily basis; she types the termination letters herself and takes solace in the lengthier tenure that affords her an ounce of job security. Her husband Teck (Chen Tianwen) bounces from one job to another after being let go from his sales gig. Jiale, a bratty only child more involved with his Tamagotchi (remember those?) than with anything else in the world, is at first hostile to the new stranger with whom he now much share his room with. However with his parents working long hours and a void in her own life from leaving behind her son in the Philippines, Teresa and Jiale develop a bond that is tested by petty jealousy from Hwee Leng, economic hardship, and class division.

Chen's method is one of bare naked candidness without any sentimentalization. Ilo Ilo is never embellished with any score, and the camera hits the sweet spot of framing that allows us to enter the emotional space of each character while also keeping us at a remove to consider the larger invisible forces that weigh down on each of them. You feel at home in their cozy loft, as if observing them from within like a member of the family. Though when squabbles and conflicts reach a boiling point, you want to hide—much like the camera does—behind furniture and watch from as far as you can. Each of the four characters have their moments where their behavior will make you recoil, but the film never demonizes or judges them. Ilo Ilo is a small gem of a film that is an example of honesty that is hard to find in movies today.

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Ilo Ilo opens today at Laemmle's Monica 4 (Santa Monica) and Playhouse 7 (Pasadena).