East-Asian cinema has long been a leading producer of meditative family dramas, from the quietly profound work of Ozu all the way through to the present day. With his acclaimed debut feature, Singaporean director Anthony Chen looks to follow in that tradition with his semi-autobiographical tale, Ilo Ilo (2013), released in UK cinemas this week through Soda Pictures. The film reportedly received a lengthy standing ovation when it screened at Cannes last year and is a touching portrait of the growing bond between a boy and his beloved nanny. Whilst the central relationship is a moving one, languid pacing and various less successful elements do detract slightly from its warming sense of heart.
Placed in the year 1997 by the incessant beeping of a child’s tamagotchi, the beginnings of the Asian financial crisis provide the backdrop for this tender 100-minute stay with the loving Lim family. Confined to a cramped suburban apartment are the unruly Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) and his hardworking and long-suffering parents, Teck (Tian Wen Chen) and Hwee Leng (Yann Yann Yeo). Both have full-time jobs and another baby is on the way, so the pair decide to bring in some domestic help in the form of Filipino, Teresa (Angeli Bayani). Initially at odds, she and Jiale eventually strike up a rapport, even as the Lim’s financial fortunes take a turn for the worse like so many other families. Throughout, each of Ilo Ilo’s performers give wonderfully naturalistic turns, providing the entire film with a heartening authenticity.
Bayani and the impish Koh Jia Ler have a particularly enjoyable chemistry that manifests especially in the scene that sees barrier between them broken; in which they water fight after a shower. On equally fine form are Chen and Yeo as Mr. and Mrs. Lim, both struggling in variously pressurised jobs and keenly aware of their waning financial stability. On top of that, Hwee Leng has to contend with Teresa’s encroaching position as surrogate mother to the boy that she herself struggles to connect with. It is actually this element of the story that works the least well, despite both women playing it perfectly. The scenes in which they but heads feel clumsy, rushed and obvious, and this sticks out in a film that feels so otherwise convincing.
Equally, Teresa’s trips to the pay phone to call home (the eponymous locale, but it’s never clear why) seem only to serve the purpose of pushing her into an additional job. This gives a notional sense of social exploration – immigrants taking unauthorised but necessary second jobs, sex workers in the mall – but it is unresolved, like a thread left hanging. Despite perhaps seeming like the pattern wasn’t followed to the letter, the final result is a well crafted vignette of a family entering a difficult period. The lack of narrative thrust may put some off, but when viewed as the story of Teresa and Jiale, Ilo Ilo is an affectionate and poignant – if slight – slice of family life.