Ilo Ilo: A warm and sincere film

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Chen in the middle, in rust-brown trousers
Chen in the middle, in rust-brown trousers

By Zafar Anjum

Chen in the middle, in rust-brown trousers
Chen in the middle, in rust-brown trousers

In mid-June 2011 when I was attending a screenplay writing residency in Singapore, I thought I was working on a unique project. My story was about a Filipino maid in Singapore who gets fired during the financial crisis of 2007-8. How many Singapore-made films have you seen that have a Filipino maid as a protagonist?

As I was working on my screenplay, I read that a young Singaporean filmmaker, Anthony Chen, was already shooting a film about a Filipino maid. Moreover, his project was being supported by the Singapore Film Commission. For a while I was jealous. Then I thought, wow! Great minds think alike.

I kept working on my screenplay. Once in a while, I would hear about Chen’s project, Ilo Ilo. I was not sure what kind of film he was making. It sounded like one of those self-indulgent artistic films that pretentious young men like to make to win awards. For me, a film must have some entertainment value in it to work. And believe me, I find entertainment value even in Bergman and Ray’s films.

Over a year, I completed my screenplay and met some local producers in Singapore. Mine was a commercial idea, involving a maid, a gangster, a taxi driver and an Indian businessman with a child. Some producers liked the idea but nothing worked out. In my mind, I was trying to make a Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels kind of a movie with a Coen Brothers’ touch.

Over time, I learnt that the only common elements between the two stories (mine and Chen’s) were a Filipino maid and a child. The similarities ended there. Boy, was I glad!

The honour

When I heard that Chen’s film had won the Camera d’Or (Golden Camera) at this year’s Cannes, I was stunned. I really had goose-bumps, for it was for the first time that a Singapore film had won that glory. I tweeted about it. Many Singaporeans who understood the value of such an award, including the Prime Minister of Singapore, lionized Chen.

Getting a Camera d’Or at the Cannes is a motherload of an honour, especially for a first- time director, and it is undoubtedly a milestone for Singapore cinema.

With his maiden feature film, Chen joined the ranks of many talented Asian filmmakers who have won this award before him, such as Mira Nair (Salam Bombay. India, 1988), Murali Nair (Throne of Death, India, 1999), Vimukthi Jayasundara (The Forsaken Land, Sri Lanka, 2005), and Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah, Australia, 2009).

The man

Before the film’s release, I had an opportunity to hear him speak to the film fraternity here.

Chen’s achievement was not a freak accident: he had worked on the script for nearly two years, had scouted for talent (especially the child actor) for months and had to run from pillar to post to raise half a million dollars to produce his film. As many new filmmakers would vouch, Chen too was discouraged by those who asked: who would like to watch a film about a Filipino maid? Nobody dies, nobody gets killed in the film; who will watch this tosh?

Undeterred, Chen kept on working on his project.  Funding came from the Singapore government and NTU, Chen’s alma mater, which was a unique vote of confidence in Chen’s talent.

After the film was made, it was selected for Cannes, which was an honour in itself. However, the talented young director faced a streak of bad luck during the screening. There were three blackouts due to technical glitches. Thankfully, the audience did not walk out of the theatre. The film received a standing ovation.

Even before the film won the prestigious award, which was a surprise for Chen, his film had been sold out to distributors in many countries. Chen and his crew’s hard work had begun to pay off.

According to his colleagues, Chen is not only bright and tenacious but like a master craftsman, he is meticulous about detail. Paying attention to detail is a great quality in an artist.

Besides, Chen is also a showman. Before the film’s première in Singapore, he launched a hunt in the Philippines for the maid who was the inspiration for his film. The maid was not only found but was brought over to Singapore to grace the film’s opening along with the President of Singapore.

All these qualities foretell that Chen will go a long way as a filmmaker.

The film

A week ago, I finally had the chance to watch the movie in a local multiplex. I was accompanied by two of my screenwriting mates.

Of course, we entered the theatre with great expectations. How good will the film be? Will it be as good as Satyajiy Ray’s Pather Panchali? Or will it be like Truffaut’s 400 Blows?

When we saw the film, we immediately connected to the Singaporean narrative. It was not like what I had expected it to be. There was nothing stylish about the film. It was a bare and matter-of-fact narrative. Chen was not copying anyone. He was trying to be honest to his material.

Ilo Ilo is a slice of life film. It has a very simple storyline. A young boy feels alienated from his parents because they are a working couple. The family hires a Filipino maid and the rest of the story is about the bonding between the two characters—the child and the maid. These two characters and the child’s parents, set in a HDB flat, largely make the universe of the film.

We could see how masterfully Chen had recreated an era of Singapore which was not very distant. Brimming with warmth, gentle humour and understated performances, the film moves you.

Though the film is a labour of love and passion, it does not mean that this is a perfect film. There are things in the film that you can nitpick about but that’s not the point. Also, if you are a hardcore fan of pop corn flicks, you might not find it entertaining enough. Had it not won an award at Cannes, the film’s fate might have been different.

There is a lot that is laudable in Ilo Ilo. You see that in the film only if, as Roger Ebert once suggested, you approach it with hope, not suspicion.

Zafar Anjum is a Singapore-based journalist and writer. He edits Kitaab.org and is the author of The Resurgence of Satyam and The Singapore Decalogue.

See also More awards for Ilo Ilo