Teresa (Angeli Bayani) has left the Philippines in order to get a job in Singapore that will help with her family finances back home. She is to be a maid staying in the apartment building of the Lins family comprising Hwee Leng (Yann Yann Yeo) and Teck (Tian Wen Chen) together with their son Jiale (Koh Jia Ler). Her chores involve washing and cleaning as well as making food and looking after Jiale. Sometimes the rules and requirements placed upon her, particularly from Hwee Leng, seem a touch unreasonable, but her job is a necessity. An important duty is collecting Jiale from school, much to his chagrin and mocking from his classmates. He’s a naughty kid, constantly in trouble with the teachers for his attitude. Teresa slowly forms a bond with Jiale, something that seems to be particularly important for him. She becomes Auntie Terry to the troublesome, stroppy boy who doesn’t receive the attention he needs from his parents. They, admittedly, have a number of issues of their own to deal with. But circumstances change and, as time passes, maybe the family can no longer afford the luxury of a maid.
Anthony Chen’s debut feature film is a carefully constructed drama helped by instinctively realistic performances. Inspired by his own recollections of his family having a Filipino maid during his childhood, the film’s title is derived from a province in the Phillipines – the place where his own maid came from.
The pacing is languid as Chen slowly introduces us to this ordinary family dealing with their ordinary lives. The film is set around the time of the 1997 financial crisis and it becomes all too clear that, despite their perceived need for domestic help, the family are living beyond their means. The primary focus of the film is the relationship between Jiale and Aunty Terry. Jiale is a boy with needs that his parents do not really understand, he has a quick temper and he does not behave in a way that is expected of him, at home or in school. He does, however, seem to be developing an impressive set of bookmaking skills – using a scrapbook to predict horse racing and lottery results from news clippings. It’s an unusual intellectual pursuit that does not impress his teacher… until Jiale gets out of trouble my advising him on the winning lottery numbers to purchase.
When Jiale attacks a fellow pupil who has mocked him mercilessly, the headmaster wants to expel him and it is Teresa who initially goes to the school to plead for him. Hwee Leng concedes to him receiving a whipping in front of the other pupils in order for him to stay; his own mother opting for corporal punishment over compassion. Teresa tries to maintain a position in employment whilst trying to understand a new society with different requirements and expectations. Jiale is undoubtedly troubled and needs more support than his parents can give him. His mother is expecting another baby and his father in total denial about the family’s increasingly poor financial situation. And Teresa, too, has her own burdens. She has left her own baby in the care of relatives while she works in a foreign country to earn enough to support her family.
Ilo Ilo is an absorbing film that raises a number of issues, particularly surrounding migrant workers but, while these are important, Chen doesn’t allow them to dominate what is ultimately a very human drama.