Ilo Ilo won the Camera D’Or at Cannes, an award given to a first-time filmmaker. Writer/director Anthony Chen tells a simple story about a Filippina nanny coming to live with a family in Singapore.
The story is at least semi-autobiographical; a young boy of about 9, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) stands in for Chen. He lives with his mother and father, Mr. and Mrs. Lim. The new nanny is Teresa (Angeli Bayani), or “Terry.”
The film isn’t explicit about when it’s set, but it’s before the cell-phone era, and there are still typewriters in some offices. My astute wife caught a “1998” on a letter being typed in said typewriter. If you are in tune with Asian politics, you’ll recognize that it’s set during a financial crisis not unlike the one currently happening in the West.
There isn’t a strong conflict, nor any villains. This is a simple, low-key story with only the usual tensions when a stranger comes into the house. Young Jiale, who has been known to lie to adults for parental attention, is angry at the disruption — Terry sleeps in his bedroom — and he takes it out on Terry when possible. And while Mrs. Lim (Yann Yann Yeo) is glad to have the help (both parents work), she isn’t entirely sure they haven’t brought a thief into their home, and she inflicts little cruelties on Terry to let her know who’s boss — including confiscating her passport.
As an immigrant and as paid help, Terry doesn’t have any motivation to fight these negative feelings. In fact, she covers up for Jiale against his parents, so as not to sow conflict, telling him “I don’t care if you like me but I have to live here.” She does the same for Mr. Lim (Tian Wen Chen) who secretly smokes cigarettes, against his wife’s wishes. In short, Terry has to take any abuse the family might give, in hopes that they continue to pay her until things get better. When Terry tries to take a salon job on her day off, she finds the same sort of immigrant abuse there as she does at the Lim’s.
Ilo Ilo is episodic, but themes and connections keep it from feeling too scattered. Partway through the film we finally see Terry call home, and we realize that by coming to Singapore, she’s left her own child in the care of a nanny.
There are other connections, too. We learn that Mrs. Lim’s office job involves culling the company’s workforce, sending out letters of termination. Whereas Mr. Lim, at a different company, blows a sales pitch and is the recipient of such a letter. And after Mr. Lim, in a fit of pique, destroys his son’s Tamagotchi — a game where you hatch a digital egg and keep the pet alive, we see a new present arrive for Jiale — three real chicks for him to raise.
As you’re watching, Ilo Ilo may not feel like a very substantial film. But those well-planned details keep coming back, making something that’s merely a “nice” first movie, into something more substantial.