Ilo Ilo (2013)
Editor’s Note: Ilo Ilo is now open in limited release
It’s difficult, in the midst of Anthony Chen’s Asian Economic Crisis-set Ilo Ilo, not to depart from the drama to wonder whether the young boy at its heart hearkens back to that time today. He’ll be not thirty by now, perhaps with a young family of his own, all the better to appreciate the difficulties that plague his parents here as financial crisis crowds in around them. It matters not much that he doesn’t exist, for at its best Chen’s is the kind of film in whose characters we implicitly believe, as though they were stood right before us as real as the screen on which we’d projected them. There isn’t too much more we can ask of our movies.
…if the trajectory of Chen’s drama is uneasy, perhaps its success is in proving that tough times bring out the best in us.
Though consistency might be a start: if that’s an effect Ilo Ilo achieves at its peak, we don’t spend all too long at the summit. More often we’re climbing over the awkward outcrops of uneven plotting that plague the pacing of the piece and keep its characters from endearing themselves to us as much as we might like. But let’s not be prim: given as he is to instants of cutesy kids-do-the-darndest-things comedy, Chen’s a filmmaker who gets—and trusts his viewers to get—that life, especially family life, is rarely nice and neat. The characters here aren’t perfect, or even close to, and nor should they be; the issue’s in expecting us to engage with their downfall when their place at the top is one they scarcely deserve.
“Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it,” Eastwood croaks in Unforgiven, and in Ilo Ilo such words certainly have weight; if the trajectory of Chen’s drama is uneasy, perhaps its success is in proving that tough times bring out the best in us. Seen chiefly through the infantile eyes of pre-teen Jiale, the financial issues arrive in almost invisible increments, stealthily building until they’re before him and his family in an imposing mass of combined might. So it is, in a sense, with the nuance of Chen’s script; if each of the four figures at the film’s centre—Jiale, his folks, and their Filipina maid—seem simplistically constructed as we enter the drama, it’s almost surprising to see where they are by its end.
Koh Jia Ler plays it convincingly in a distinguished debut performance that does well to keep pace with its elder equivalents.
Like the body that falls at the edge of the frame in one of the film’s fleeting moments of overt expressionism, that evolution unfolds almost off-screen, an implied exacerbation of the situation that shifts these characters’ sense of what really matters. “There is no room for God here,” the religious maid’s mockingly told by a neighbour, and if the kid’s nascent outlook isn’t exactly Nietzschean, by proceedings’ end he’s arrived at a new appreciation for the earthly pleasure incarnate in what few, fractured relationships he has. Koh Jia Ler plays it convincingly in a distinguished debut performance that does well to keep pace with its elder equivalents. Tian Wen Chen’s a standout as the distant, desperate dad, whose austerity beautifully bespeaks deep-dug emotion.
As naturalistic in his visual sensibility as in scripting, Chen opts primarily for a handheld spontaneity, Benoit Soler’s crisp—if unassuming—lensing doing well to capture the vivacity of suburban Singapore. The few faster-paced scenes suffer from manic framing and the edits’ amplification of, though given the scarcity of such sequences it’s hardly a huge issue. The visceral verisimilitude of fiscal tough times chimes to such an extent, either way, that concern for the characters outweighs attention to their frames. Ilo Ilo isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s a movie awash with imperfect people, a lot closer to us than we might care to admit. How strange that its refusal to sentimentalise their strife is what makes it all the sweeter.
Ilo Ilo isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s a movie awash with imperfect people, a lot closer to us than we might care to admit.