I first heard about this film because the social media was abuzz with news that this film had won the Camera D’or. This was the first time in living memory that a Singaporean film had won such a major award. So I was innately curious to watch it. This film was interesting for a few reasons. First, the title was strange: Ilo Ilo – most probably the Filipino province that the maid came from. After watching the film, I sensed that the allusion was more to Edward Yang’s great “Yi Yi” rather than the place in the Philippines.
Maybe one day people will make a film about Singapore during colonial times. There were so many television serials in Singapore during the 80s that were about colonial times that I’m a little surprised that Singapore has not attempted to make a period drama.
The second thing that I learn about this film, other than the Camera D’or, is that it’s about a Chinese family staying in the HDB flats, that means it’s somewhat like “12 Storeys” or “Singapore Dreaming”. One way you can look at it is that it’s like British cinema where everybody’s a middle class person living in the townhouses. But that’s the problem with British drama and also Singaporean drama – lives are so predictable and staid that most of what passes for drama are the subtle nuances. This is a subtle nuances drama.
To be sure, there are a few jokes, and they are told well. Like “Yi Yi” the discipline master is the butt of jokes. There are sly digs at the 4D buying culture.
There are no heroes in this film, except maybe the maid. The father is emphatically not successful in his career, and in the financial crisis, he had to work as a security guard. The mother nailed down a steady job, but has to oversee a whole range of layoffs. And while she has always been civil towards the maid, the kindness at the beginning eventually got replaced by the jealousy that Jiale was getting closer to the maid. Jiale was a brat, and while the bond that he developed with the maid is the center of the story, he’s always been a brat. And there is nothing especially heroic about having a maid wait on a 10 year old boy hand and foot. But even the maid is definitely an imperfect person. She was guilty of moonlighting in order to raise money for an emergency that was not very clearly explained.
The film suffers from the first film syndrome: the author was so excited about making the film that he tries to cover too much ground without developing them more tightly. We know relatively little about Jiale’s classmates, or the mother’s colleagues, or about Terry’s friends and who she’s speaking over the public phone to. We hardly see very much about the neighbour’s maid. There are loopholes, like when the father drunk too much at a banquet, we never figured out who drove the family home. Somebody who got laid off from the shipping line killed himself, but other than that, we didn’t know anything about him. The death anniversary (it’s not qing ming or 7th month because if that were the case the cemetery would have been very crowded) of the grandfather does not serve any purpose. In fact, the grandfather doesn’t serve any purpose. The net effect of all this is that the family seems to exist as an entirely self-contained and atomic universe, cut off from the rest of the world, even as it is paradoxically cramped side by side with so many other similar families in the same HDB block. Perhaps this is the intended effect, but I don’t know. Anthony Chen knows which aspects of Singapore life are truly iconic. The HDB flats. Jurong Island. The drive on ECP to Changi airport, and the anchorage. Popular book store. The crappy Chinese banquets at family gatherings. The void deck funerals. Lucky Plaza. The 4D results on the radio at 7pm on Saturday. (There is a loophole here: the 4D results are also available on teletext). Container terminals. The Singapore pledge. The public corporal exhibitions. Lim Chu Kang cemetery. The sleazy motivational speakers.
As a Singaporean living abroad I know that when you are trying to explain Singapore to the Americans, you do not present it as some exotic island paradise. You present it as a mutant version of America. You remind them that there are the trappings of western modern life everywhere, but the vestiges of something strange and foreign is always lying around somewhere. Even the Singlish had to be subtitled to make it comprehensible to the westerners.
Because this is the malaise of Singaporean films in general: there is perhaps an over-eagerness to introduce aspects of Singaporean life to the world. To celebrate the lower middle class the way the Kinks and Pulp and Britpop celebrated the “essentially British” lifestyle: the parks, the cramped lifestyles, the weekend football, the messy traditional English breakfast, the tacky wallpaper and the afternoon tea. “Ilo Ilo” is the Singaporean version of that. But while you get high marks for style, what about the substance? There is no Big Story here. It is merely a series of vignettes. It is a portrait. It does not illuminate something that is truly essential about the human condition. There is something flat and stale about this movie – but admittedly even that is authentic, because life in general in Singapore is flat and stale. You will not see meaningful and deep conversations between Singaporeans because they don’t do that. You will not see extravagant displays of affection, you will not see people expressing their emotions in a manner that is not inept, you will not see people having frank and deep inquisitions into their existential situation. Because that is not Singaporean. One thing that's conspicuous about the movie: there are few minorities, other than Terry and the school principal. No Malays. But given that I've just complained that this movie keep on putting elements of Singapore front and centre, maybe I should be glad that there's no lame excuse to put in a spontaneous celebration of Singaporean Hawker Fare.
In fact, I struggle to think about meaningful relationships that take place between the principals. This movie is billed as the relationship between the maid and the child because it is the only fully fleshed relationship in the whole movie. The parents are unfailingly dutiful and loyal to each other but you sense that the love is gone. The kid and the parents are driving each other up the wall. Birthday celebrations are nice and warm but there’s nothing much more to it.
But the upside is that the sure-footedness with which Anthony Chen avoids some of the traps he could have fallen into. He could have turned Terry into a saintly figure. She is clearly a good person but she’s had to break the rules in a big way by moonlighting, and even considered working in a sleazy pub. There is an awkwardness of a boy who is only one or two years away from puberty being bathed by a young and attractive female. That angle has hardly been explored, except in subtle hints like “your hair is so smelly” and the snipping it off as a keepsake. He could have demonized the mother by making her do something monstrous, but in the end she is just reduced to petty sniping. The father could have been a hero but instead he’s the passive victim of his own circumstances. The child could have been a brat redeemed by the care and love of the maid and turned into a better person. But thankfully this puke inducing possibility was carefully avoided. The jealousy of the mother for the burgeoning relationship between the maid and the child could have escalated into something more substantial than a petty quarrel about a misplaced cigarette butt, but it didn’t, because ultimately the decisive factor was that the family could no longer afford to pay Terry’s wages.
The downside to Anthony Chen’s decision to avoid all these flashpoints of melodrama, though is that this movie turns out to be more horizontal and flat.
The hilarious venality of the discipline master is a nice touch, as is the obsession with the lottery that runs through the family. The cramped workplace of the mother is very true to reality. I like the way that the story puts all the adults under pressure, even Terry’s moonlighting was the cause of the fight that almost got the child expelled. If there is a word that I would describe the virtues of this film, it would be that it’s “authentic”. The details are authentic. This is the pre-internet age, and probably the last time that you will find telephone booths everywhere, and where people still use typewriters. The car is a mid-80s Honda destined for the scrap heap. The accents are obviously authentic. The corporal punishment is authentic. All the good things said about “Ilo Ilo” are true. The director is mature beyond his years. He makes very few false steps other than the loose ends I had highlighted above.
Contrast this with “12 Storeys”. “12 Storeys” is obviously made by a person who has never lived in a HDB flat in his life because he’s the son of one of the richest people in Singapore. As a result, it is a highly stylized caricature, how an upper class person might imagine the lower middle class living their gritty and highly imperfect lives. The caricature of Koh Buck Song as the straight edged, repressed civil servant is a very crude one, and the Jack Neo portion with his China bride is very – well – Jack Neo. “12 Storeys” was a great step forward for Singapore cinema at that time, but it was a very limited film, and way too self-consciously arty. “Ilo Ilo” is something more organic and heartfelt, and would represent another step forward.
But as you can probably guess, there is an underlying theme to this critique. Because I don’t really know if this is a critique of the film or a bigger, deeper critique of the way that Singaporeans live their lives. There is no drama. We don’t live lives that make for great cinema. “Ilo Ilo” is a very good film. I would have given it four stars out of five. I saw this as part of the Mexico film festival, and there was a voting slip. The patriot in me gave if five out of five. But I think the it might be impossible to make a great film that was true to the lives that Singaporeans lead – it’s too staid. When I think about the great stories behind TV serials, they are people put in dramatic, extreme situations. A crystal meth lab in “Breaking Bad”. A middle class gangster in “The Sopranos”. People living the frontier life in “Lost”. Maybe if we made a life of the older generation, in their natural surroundings, there might be more scope for greater cinema. Maybe I should meet up with Anthony Chen and ask him to do a film about my dad’s family.
If I could just contrast this to what Edward Yang achieved in “Yi Yi”. I would say that “Ilo Ilo” was the movie that I had expected to watch when I stepped into the theatre at Snowy Hill more than 10 years ago. But “Yi Yi” had achieved something greater than the sum of its parts. Yes, it does seem as though the different family members are living separate lives, but there is a coherence to all their struggles. The teenage daughter struggles with growing pains and the jitteriness of first dates. The parents struggle with their respective midlife crises. The father goes on a date with his old lover, and skirts dangerously close to beginning an affair. Even then there is something eerie and ghostly about how the father’s date with the lover is interspersed with the daughter going on a date with her boyfriend. Every one of the characters is struggling with the big question: what is the meaning of life? The father wants to be creating something vital and new with his work every day. The daughter is grappling with entry to adulthood. The mother is finding life meaningless and ebbing away from her. Yes, on the surface this is “just” a drama about a family, and to be sure it is a pretty good one. But it never loses the bigger picture. The younger son, Yang Yang is a cheery and happy person who makes such a contrast with the adults – he doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. And the grandmother who has passed on is the guardian angel who watches them all. There is a cohesion, a deeper underlying structure to this cosmos that “Ilo Ilo” does not achieve.
That said, it is also true that “Yi Yi” is a singular achievement, one of the greatest films ever made, and it’s pretty unfair to compare any film to “Yi Yi”.
So the issue seems to be: how can Anthony Chen follow this up? I was thinking that maybe you could do it like Antoine Doinel and make a few more films about Jiale. But the problem is that one of the most compelling characters - Terry - has been exiled. The problem with Singapore cinema is that it is almost impossible to make a fictional film. I can't conceive of a science fiction film set in Singapore. Unless you have a time travelling Samsui woman or something. Or a time travelling Japanese soldier. Would it be possible to make a film about Jemiah Islamiyah? Internal Security Department? World War 2? The classic TV series "Kopi O" is the closest thing we have to a "Cheers", where everybody knows your name. But how many places truly exist in Singapore where everybody knows your name?
The possibilities of cinema in East Asia face the problem that we are a highly structured and straitened society, and there are plenty of constraints on the possibilities. Plenty of Singapore films that have been made face the problem that if the audience is assumed to be foreign, almost half of the movie will be "Introduction to Singapore 101". The realism is overwhelming and it acts like a vice on the possibilities. Here, look at our coffeeshops! Look at the HDB flats! Look at our Peranakans! How are we going to solve the problem?