Brimming with love, humor and heartbreak, “Ilo Ilo” centers on the inseparable bond between a 10-year-old Singaporean boy and his Filipina nanny while the boy’s parents struggle to weather the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Debuting helmer Anthony Chen is remarkably astute in his depiction of the class and racial tensions within such a household, his accessible style enabling the characters’ underlying decency and warmth to emerge unforced. This small but immensely likable gem should find a cozy spot at fests as well as niche European distribution, following its Camera d’Or win at Cannes.
The film’s Chinese title, which translates as “Mom and Dad Are Not Home,” describes the predicament of so many Asian children who are placed in the care of foreign nannies while their parents work to maintain a double-income lifestyle. One such family is the Lims, who are going through a particularly rough patch. Keng Teck Lim (Chen Tian Wen) has lost his sales exec job, but hasn’t mustered the courage to tell anyone; his wife, Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann), is pregnant, but still plugs away at a mentally draining secretarial position. Starved of attention, their son, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), has become a troublemaker at school, forcing the Lims to hire domestic help Terry (Angeli Bayani), who hails from the Philippine province of the title, to keep an eye on him.
The film doesn’t soft-pedal the way rambunctious brat Jia Le bullies his deferential and accommodating caregiver. Defying stereotypes, Terry turns out to be no doormat, either. The way in which the two calibrate their tentative affection is delightfully expressed in a scene in which Jia Le takes note of Terry’s exclusion from a family banquet, and offers her his shark’s fin soup: “It’s very expensive but I don’t like it.”
For his first feature, helmer Chen has discarded the languid long takes and arty mannerisms of his last short, “Ah Ma,” in favor of simple storytelling. His well-paced, character-driven screenplay is peppered with little dramas of home life, such as a cute running gag about baby chicks that underlines the film’s child-rearing theme. The rough-and-tumble relationship between Jia Le and Terry is engagingly interwoven with the Lims’ financial woes, which loom larger in the second half.
The film sketches a genuinely moving portrait of Keng Teck, a failed breadwinner with a wounded ego, whose good nature is revealed in tiny gestures of solidarity with Terry. Theater/TV thesp Chen Tian Wen gives a subdued performance, which makes his sudden flareups all the more startling when he can’t take his wife’s henpecking anymore.
But the director is no less sympathetic to Hwee Leng, who, despite her bossiness and sometimes unforgivable spitefulness toward Terry, makes every effort to hold her family together; her jealousy of Jia Le’s closeness with Terry reflects the uneasy interdependence between working women and the nannies who have become surrogate mothers to their children. Malaysian thesp Yeo is pitch-perfect as a typical middle-class Singaporean, down to the tone of matter-of-fact condescension she uses at work. (The actress became pregnant during the shoot, and her naturally clumsy gait help convey the character’s anxiety and sense of feeling burdened.)
Bayani, who has appeared in the films of Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, is as unself-conscious here as a non-pro thesp. She radiates dignity even though her character is neither martyr nor saint, but rather a pragmatic woman who will lie a little to survive; the emotional heft Bayani brings to the bittersweet ending will make it hard for audiences to leave dry-eyed. But the star of the film is Koh, a dynamo onscreen who, without playing cute, makes one see the humorous, fiercely loyal kid beneath the obnoxious pranks and wild temper.
Tech credits are modest but well executed, in keeping with the down-to-earth direction. French lenser Benoit Soler’s deceptively plain images of homogenous Housing Development Board flats and faceless neighborhoods accentuate the ordinariness of the characters’ lives and the universality of their plight. Except for the Tamagotchi toys Jia Le plays with, the late-’90s period background is de-emphasized.