I’m young and irresponsible enough to still carry somewhere within me the petulant rebelliousness of a child, while also being old and knackered and adult enough to crave order, respect, and at least a small measure of reliability. Unfortunately the two rarely stabilise in my own head, but on the plus side this means I can identify with the concerns and preoccupations of both grown-ups and kids. On a basic level, these roles are those of the authority and the subject.
Perhaps Anthony Chen, only two years my senior and the director of this brilliant debut feature, is similarly straddling the age boundary between short-sighted youth and long-suffering adulthood. Judging by the achievements of Ilo Ilo, he seems intuitively able to tease out the humanity in the small indignities and defiance of every role, both domestic and emotional, that makes up a family. Each of the four major characters is under pressure from within and without, caught in an uncomfortable tussle between love and necessity. It’s an unpredictable and finely wrought movie, totally in service of its central performances, delivering the one solitary moment of genuinely touching cinema I saw during the ten or so CineCity screenings I attended this year.
Ilo Ilo begins with the troublesome ten-year old Jiale, or “Boy” as he is just as frequently called, raising hell in his teacher’s office. Soon his hardworking and browbeaten mother is informed, and she is exasperated at his refusal to take punishment seriously. It initially seems like this mother-son antagonism will form the core of the story, but soon Chen introduces the boy’s luckless salesman father and an immigrant Filipino maid into the dynamic, and gradually all four characters develop an interpersonal dynamic that’s richly balanced with humour, warmth, pathos and tension.
This skilfully made film validates itself by its totally believable narrative and relevant socio-economic themes. Teresa the maid has emigrated away from her own infant son to make a living abroad, babysitting an unruly boy who disrupts her at every opportunity.
The father, Teck, seems very ill-suited to the pressures of his own industry, and his half-hearted plan to start a new business is shouted down by his wife Hwee Leng, who reminds him he’s no entrepreneur. She comes across as rather a caricature of the stressed and domineering mother at first, trying to remain head of the household even after handing over the mundane responsibilities to Teresa.
But gradually all these standoffish relationships begin to soften, or rather, the undercurrents of love and tolerance that have always been there are revealed. The light caricatural touches of ‘hapless father’ and ‘domineering mother’ are played for tragicomic purposes, and it’s a credit to Chan’s sense of the pace of realist storytelling that we finally get to see the tenderness between the parents in the moment they acknowledge the effects of their own flawed and desperate decisions. As individuals and providers they are found equally wanting, and the director waits until just the right moment to address this.
To reveal more about the tipping points of each relationship would be definite spoiler flirtation, but it’s no spoiler to say that something much more nuanced than simple opposition develops between Jiale and Teresa. In many ways, the film is hers. Angeli Bayani’s performance is terrific. In her baggy old T-shirts, ideal only for the messy and tiring graft of the home help, she appeals as a working everywoman of no particular privilege. From the moment early on in which her façade of apprehensive servitude cracks and she confronts Jiale about his bullying behaviour towards her, the audience is behind her all the way. And we’re still behind her when she softens and begins to win the trust of the boy we’ve already condemned as an appalling brat.
Through her we begin to see Jiale as loyal and intelligent, and realise that the director has achieved an extraordinarily naturalistic performance from the young actor. When the boy is at his most rebellious there is genuine tension in the air; we don’t know how far he will go, or if he’ll do something really dangerous. It’s through Jiale that the only really existential theme of the film is touched upon: the idea of childhood memory. He eagerly poses for several birthday photos with Teresa, keeps a lock of her hair, and listens to her cassettes. To me these were the most touching moments, because we can see the foundations and markers of a significant formative experience unfolding before us, in the ‘real time’ of small gestures and moments.
Ilo Ilo is a film that takes absolutely no short cuts to achieve its emotional resonance. Anthony Chan has delivered a great example of modern, intimate and performance-centric direction, and I look forward to seeing his name again. Go and find this movie.
Words: David Hamilton-Smith