Ilo Ilo

Everybody ought to have a maid.

Everybody ought to have a maid.

(2013) Drama (Film Movement) Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Tian Wen Chen, Yann Yann Yeo, Jo Kukathas. Directed by Anthony Chen

Offshoring

Two parents working is an economic reality that is true just about everywhere; it is not a matter of preference but necessity.

Jiale (Ler) is a young boy whose parents both work. His father, Teck (Chen) is a salesman whose product proves to be woefully inferior. That’s never a good situation to be in for any sort of salesman. His mother Hwee Leng (Yeo) who is substantially pregnant, works as an administrator for a business that is laying off employees at a frightening clip. You see, it’s 1997 and the Asian economic crisis has swept into Singapore like a monsoon followed by a tsunami.

As Jiale begins acting out in school, Hwee Leng, called to the principal’s office for what is likely not the first time, realizes that she needs help. She prevails upon Teck to hire a maid. That made is Teresa (Bayani) from the Philippines who left her son back home in order to earn money. However, she is not just to be a maid – she is also to be something of a nanny to Jiale.

At first, Jiale is furious at the intrusion. He finds ways to humiliate and torture Teresa that might have worked had Teresa been as timid inside as she was deferent outside. However she has a surprising core of steel and Jiale is eventually put to heel. In fact, the more time Teresa and Jiale spend together, the closer their bond becomes which doesn’t sit too well with Hwee Leng.

Both Teck and Hwee Leng have a lot on their minds. As Hwee Leng’s pregnancy progresses, she relies more and more on Teresa which bothers her quite a bit. Already with a bit of a patrician attitude to begin with, she continues to put Teresa in her place (which is squarely below Hwee Leng’s social standing) at every opportunity. It is Teck and Jiale who start to open up to the maid who becomes something of a confidant. And while the economic situation worsens for Teck and Hwee Leng grows more and more stressed, Teresa is slowly becoming indispensable for Jiale.

Chen, directing his first feature-length film, based this on his own experiences growing up in Singapore at the time period the film is set in with two working parents and a Filipino maid/nanny (in fact following the film’s Camera d’Or win at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, he was inspired to find her in the Philippines and re-establish contact). The film has that air of realism that often comes with semi-biographical films.

Ler is a pretty natural actor and dang cute on top of that. He is often called upon to be mean, surly and cruel which kids don’t necessarily take to naturally – and as the film progresses, he is called upon to be reflective, open and affectionate. Young Jiale is somewhat spoiled and very spirited and although it might sound like an easy role to play, let me assure you that it isn’t.

Yeo also has a thankless role, but pulls it off. She isn’t necessarily a sympathetic character (which makes one wonder about Chen’s relationship with his mother) but she’s a character who is definitely buffeted by winds outside of her control. Her husband is somewhat weak and doesn’t always act wisely or in the family’s best interests and that weighs upon her, almost forced into the role of being the pillar of the family which may or may not be a role she’s suited for (Hwee Ling I mean). Yeo became pregnant shortly before filming began and her pregnancy was then written into the film. Chen’s own mother was not pregnant during the time that his nanny was there. Incidentally, the pictures over the end credits are Yeo with her actual baby, who was born shortly after filming ended.

The relationships between mother and son, father and son and mother and father are all impacted by the arrival of Teresa, who changes the dynamics of all the relationships in the family. Her relationships with the family members are also very distinct and different from one another. They feel organic and realistic and go a long way to making the film accessible.

While the movie drags in spots and occasionally makes redundant points, the feeling here is of being the fly on the wall in an intimate family setting. We see the toll the financial stress takes on the family – the kind of thing plenty of Americans can relate to in these difficult times. We also see the toll Jiale’s behavior takes on the parents, which any parent from any culture can relate to. There will be those who will find this to hit a little too close to home in places, but at the very least it’s comforting to know that no matter where you live, there are things we all share in common.

REASONS TO GO: Nice complexity to the various relationships. Americans will be able to relate to the issues here.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little forced in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and smoking as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is named for the Filipino province where Chen’s actual nanny was from.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nanny Diaries

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!

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