Ilo Ilo begins in darkness overlaid with acute collections of sound: children playing, a bus horns, adult voices. Anthony Chen’s reconstruction of Singapore amidst the Asian financial crisis of 1997 is made of memories. It is loosely autobiographical1 but takes not the form of an archaeological reconstruction, rather a general remembered impression of childhood from vividly detailed sensation. Ilo Ilo moves between passing sensations and accented events, as subjectively perceived through Jiale (Jia Ler Koh), frequently shown peering through frames: window bars, a book case, glass screens; or as partially-imagined recreations from Jiale’s glimpsed observations of the adults around him. Koh performs with astounding authenticity as an avatar of Chen’s memories, embodying the internal confusion of late childhood becoming aware of its own self-contradiction – the same Jiale who pulls obnoxious pranks and tantrums is uniquely generous and fiercely loyal. Ilo Ilo evokes the hyperreality of memory by emulating the forms in which experience is recalled. Chen discards the languid long takes of his previous work (the short ‘Ah Ma‘), instead filming with handheld camera instances lucid with details that precisely fill each frame. Early shots of Jiale’s bare arms in matching cartoon pyjama sets invite the audience into saturation in textures: clean cotton bedlinen, stiff white starched school shirts, cool swept marble floors, the plastic coating over lacework table covers. Benoit Soler extraordinarily captures both Singapore’s viscous humidity and its relief in dark-blue night air through a fine haze which veils the film’s pastel colouring. Soler’s naturalistic cinematography and Chen’s virtual exclusion of non-diegetic sound (one song plays at the end signalling the memory’s close) is crucial to the film’s omission of sentimentality as it presents itself as memory, and not nostalgia (the emotional reflection on memory).
Ilo Ilo remembers Jiale’s experience of recognising himself within and subject to a rigidly ordered structural system that regulates emotions and affection. Terry (Angeli Bayani), a filipino domestic helper, moves into the home of a middle-class Singaporean-Chinese family to care for their mischievous son, who initially rejects and rebels against her. The family’s financial uncertainty strains both parents: Jiale’s father Teck (Chen Tian Wen) secretly takes a night watchman position after being laid off as a sales executive, Chen reflects his simmering anxiety erupting in sudden explosions. Yann Yann Yeo as Jiale’s pregnant mother empathetically shows Hwee Leng’s condescension and sometimes spitefulness as attempts to push through exhaustion as she struggles to mother Jiale and retain her job as a public officer. The politics of economy and class are internalised into family, the film’s Chinese title comes from a Mandarin phrase that translates as ‘Mom and Dad Are Not Home’ – economic systems both enable and limit the expression of love. When a schoolmate taunts Jiale that Terry only loves you because your mommy pays her’, Jiale pushes him into a bathroom wall and is almost expelled. The camera watches Jiale’s face amongst dark curtains as he recites in unison the Singaporean national pledge. He is walked onstage before his uniformed peers in the assembly hall below, whilst the school-principal delivers a disciplinary speech emphasising order. We next see Jiale’s face breaking hot, protesting tears as he is caned.
The political interface between the personal and public is reflected throughout the beginning of the film, as the hand-held camera training through cluttered, colourful homes and markets and intimate faces and gestures is punctuated by removed panoramic stilled-shots of Singapore harbour and its linear, sterile skyline. The two spaces meet when Jiale takes Terry to the balcony of their Housing Development Board flat and we see their bodies embedded into the urban topography in both close-up and distanced wide-shot. Hence, Chen’s examination of the significant but little events of home life that fill the bulk of childhood memory explores the interstitial relationships and tensions that emerge through the spaces around and between such structures. Chen delicately frames the quiet physical interactions of the actors, in the way their characters’ consciously and unconsciously receive and respond to one another. Particular attention is devoted to the dynamics undergirding the relationship between Terry and Hwee Leng, who navigate a complicated and uneasy interdependence as dual maternal figures to Jiale. Chen emulates the posterior realisation of nuanced interactions, depicted over Jiale’s birthday fried chicken, which we enter through a television advertisement for baby chicks that melds into the blur of Jiale’s back through glass, recalling the blurring that opens the film. As chicks form attachments at their first sight, when the blur clears the movement of bodies around the dining-room table mirrors Terry’s earlier introduction into the home, the physical estrangement of Terry and Hwee Leng reversed. A merit of Ilo Ilo is the rare integrity of its focalisation of Terry, who as a filipino maid is historically unvoiced. Bayani enacts Terry’s own performances of roles relative to each family member and to other filipino women, a neighbour’s maid and in her illegal second job as a hairdresser. However, it is during her phone calls home seeking news of her own young son that the complexity of surrogacy is most keenly felt, as Terry is revealed as a pragmatic survivalist possessing her own personal history. One of the film’s most weighted scenes, in which temporal order collapses as Terry drops a laundry pole while a neighbour impacts the ground committing suicide, singularly deviates from Soler’s naturalism into frenzied visual and absonant disarrangement as we enter Terry’s mental terrain.
Ilo Ilo falls short when it briefly comes apart as memory – wandering into narrative it loses much of the potency of its early lucidity. However the film recovers in its sensitive ending conveying the dissociated feeling of having grown as Jiale, dressed as an adult, is his father’s companion. As they wait on a hospital bench, with his mother in labour, Jiale shares an earphone with Teck and Terry’s walkman is revealed as the song she had earlier shared with Jiale plays over a home video of Jiale’s baby brother being born. The inclusion of the home video frames the film as a pastiche of memories, where the extended impressions that compose the film are kinds of hereditary anecdotes, resembling the process of remembering for another. On the critical success of Ilo Ilo (amongst other awards winning the Camera d’Or and Golden Horse for Best Film), Chen has spoken of his hope that it will influence a change in the kinds of films produced in Singapore (where most releases fall into either comedy or horror) and encourage investment from the government and private sector in less deliberately commercial and more experimental film. As Chen described his film, it subverted a lot of expectations of what could be and couldn’t be done in Singapore. However, Chen has made perhaps the most quintessentially Singaporean film, in both his evocations of specifically localised and intricately detailed senses, and treatment of the intersections of social and economic orders with interpersonal and interior experience. Ilo IloIlo Ilo takes the form of a hereditary memory of Singapore, told by Chen to new Singaporean cinema. The broadness of its appeal is that as it contacts the unexceptional recurrences of childhood experience, in its impressionistic and visceral process of remembering it makes us Singaporean.