Movie Reviews

‘Ilo Ilo’: An authentic and heartbreaking drama

By Travis WongMovies - 03 August 2013 12:00 AM | Updated 03 September 2013

‘Ilo Ilo’: An authentic and heartbreaking drama

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Rating: 5 stars out of 5

You can't get more prominence than having the Singapore Prime Minister mention you in his National Day Rally speech. But it's worth the hype. 

‘Ilo Ilo’, the Camera d'Or winner, awarded for best first film at Cannes, is an insightful and heart-wrenching look at a family under siege in the late 1990s. 

Directed by Singaporean Anthony Chen, it thoroughly deserves the award and marks the entrance of a promising new director on the scene and a landmark in Singapore filmmaking.

Also read: 5 Singapore filmmakers to watch

It's a quiet film, with much of it understated, but Chen doesn't hold onto scenes for too long and shows a flair for capturing characters struggling to connect. He refuses to spell out everything, and for a first-time director, has great craftsmanship. 

The film is set at the time of an economic crisis. It chronicles the relationship between the Lim family and their new domestic helper, Terry (Angeli Bayani). Like many other Filipino women, she has left her family to come to Singapore in search of a better life.

Also see: 5 great Singapore movies

In the Lim household, the pregnant Hwee Leng (Yen Yen) is struggling to hold on to her job, while her husband, Keng Teck (Chen Tianwen), is barely clinging to his. Their son, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), has problems in school.

After bullying Terry, Jiale gradually forms a bond with the feisty maid, even as the family undergoes greater hardships, feeling the full impact of the financial crisis. 

With excellent acting all round and great chemistry between the four main players, ‘Ilo Ilo’ is a natural and it never over-dramatises situations. Director Chen has managed to get great performances from his cast.

Ilo Ilo
Angeli Bayani, Chen Tian Wen, Koh Jia Ler, Yeo Yann Yann in a scene

It is surprising to see TV stalwart Chen Tianwen's take on the unglamorous role of the father, strutting around in white cotton underwear and struggling to keep the family together. Yen Yen's performance is also exceptional, considering she was pregnant in real life when the film was shot.

Filipino actress Angeli Bayani is also superb as Terry, knowing when to accept the odd quirks of the family and when to fight back for herself. The director doesn't paint a halo around the character; she also has her weaknesses.

Koh, who plays the son, is an impressive find.  Despite his obnoxious and disobedient nature, director Chen gets underneath his skin. 

The film doesn't always go down the route one expects since nothing is overstated. There appears to be a close relationship between Jiale and his deceased grandfather, but what might have been a story arc is never explained.

The film lets the viewer do a lot of the work, and never dips into being over-sentimental. Unlike the works of recent Singaporean filmmakers, the film also does not wallow in nostalgia. 

For a first-time feature filmmaker, Anthony Chen has crafted a thoroughly Singapore story with universal themes. One can hardly wait to see what he does next.  

‘Ilo Ilo’ is now showing in cinemas


Travis Wong is a film loving geek who got his start from frequenting video shops in JB. He frequented movie theaters more often than school, and received his cinematic epiphany when he watched 'Taxi Driver'. While not driving a cab, he haunts DVD shops, and he currently has the largest remaining collection of VHS tapes and Laserdiscs in the country.