Ilo Ilo review: maid in Singapore

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Ilo Ilo green light

A lovely, intimate drama of family dynamics under stress, offering an intriguing peek into previously unseen Singaporean middle-class life.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Few films have come out of Singapore, which is only just now starting to develop a significant cinema, and most of those have been genre films. The lovely, intimate Ilo Ilo — Singapore’s official submission to the 2014 Oscars in the Foreign Language category — is part intriguing peek into middle-class life in that city-state, something most viewers will be unfamiliar with either firsthand or onscreen, and part illustration of the frustrations and indignities of foreign domestic workers that appear to be universal wherever women leave their own homes to go work in someone else’s. Here, Teresa (Angeli Bayani) has just arrived from the Philippines to take care of the Lim family’s highrise apartment and their 10-year-old son, bratty, uncontrollable Jiale (Koh Jia Ler). Wife and mother Hwee Leng (Yann Yann Yeo) is hugely pregnant, which is perhaps what has prompted Teresa’s hiring, and the prospects for Teresa loom rather ominously at first: Hwee Leng takes her passport, “so she doesn’t run off,” and announces that she is to share a bedroom with the kid. Yikes. But this isn’t a thriller or a horror movie: it’s an exploration of family dynamics when a stranger is injected into its very core. Stress among the Lims is already high, particularly in managing Jiale’s hijinks, and things are getting worse as the Asian recession is starting to hit — this is set in 1998 — and husband and father Teck (Tian Wen Chen) loses his job and proceeds to hide this fact from the family. But Teresa is always around and sees all, and yet is in the untenable position of pretending ignorance while also struggling not to upend a status quo that, by her very presence, she has already upset. She cannot help but develop a special relationship with Jiale, for instance, since she is around while Hwee Leng, an office worker, is not… but then this induces a jealous reaction in Hwee Leng. There is no way Teresa can win at this. Meanwhile, we start to get hints at what Teresa has left behind at home… Writer-director Anthony Chen makes his feature debut with this beautiful little film, and I look forward to seeing what stories he has to tell us next.

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