(director/writer: Anthony Chen; cinematographer: Benoit Soler; editors: Hoping Chen,/Joanne Cheong; cast: Yeo Yann Yann (Mother, Hwee Leng), Chen Tianwen (Father, Teck Lim), Angeli Bayani (Terry), Koh Jia Ler (Jiale), Jo Kukathas (School Principal), Delvin Neo (Fat Boy), Siew Khim Yeo (Grandmother), Gim Goh (Jimmy Goh); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Ang Hwee Sim/Yuni Hadi/Anthony Chen; Film Movement; 2013-China-in Mandarin, Tagalog and English, with an Ilo Ilo dialect and English subtitles)

A low-key gentle observant family drama that resonates emotionally with intimacy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The film’s title in Chinese literally means ‘Father and Mother Not at Home.’ First-time Singaporean director Anthony Chen, now based in London, helms a low-key gentle observant family drama that resonates emotionally with intimacy. The drama is semi-autobiographical. It’s based on the director’s own childhood memories and experiences, that takes us throughAsia’s 1997 financial crisis and its days of modernization. It tells the story of the 28-year-old Terry (Angeli Bayani), a live-in domestic worker from the province Ilo Ilo in The Philippines and her adjustment to the foreign Singapore and her new life as a live-in maid and nanny in a fragile middle class household. Terry has been hired by fulltime stressed-out working parents, Teck Lim (Chen Tianwen) and his pregnant wife Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann, to mind their precocious rascal-like spoiled bratty 10-year-old son Jiale (Jia Ler), who’s been getting into trouble both at school and at home.

The kid is a monster that the saintly immigrant Terry endures because the single mom needs the money to support her toddler back home being cared for by relatives. After a bad start with the smart but unruly kid, they develop a special bond. When Terry eventually becomes a staple of the family, the economic slump hits home and the family patriarch is devastated he lost his salesman job and doesn’t tell the family until two months later. In the family’s daily life we witness Jiale receiving a whipping in front of the English principal and entire student assembly for a bathroom fight that hospitalizes the other student and threatens him with expulsion; a neighbor jumping off the roof to commit suicide; the office administrative clerk for a shipping company mother, handling termination notices, sucked into losing money by buying into a scam motivational speaker’s phony courses, but who nevertheless brings us the pic’s inspiration message “hope lies within yourself”; and the deflated father selling his old car to a junk yard dealer for a song, while we watch another car being crushed (which serves as the pic’s not too subtle metaphorical shot). It ends with Terry forced to return home because the middle class couple has no more luxury money for a maid. The point of the pic being that everyone in Singapore has been scammed by the greedy cheating opportunists.

The slow-moving observant family drama boldly cries out to be recognized as following along the lines of Yasujiro Ozu’ Tokyo Story (1953) or the late Edward Yang’ Yi Yi (2000), two enduring masterpieces about family life. Ilo Ilo received the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.