Set in Singapore during the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the film explores the relationship between a hard-on-their-luck lower-middle class family adjusting to the addition of their newly appointed Filipino housemaid, Teresa/Terry.
Much like many other Filipino women, Terry has travelled to Singapore in search of better working conditions, only to be met with the task of supervising the Lim family’s brattish and incredibly needy son Jiale, who quickly makes it is mission to bully her into leaving.
With financial woes straining the family’s stability, Terry is relied on more then ever to keep the peace. It is during this time that she and Jiale begin a unique bond of friendship, love and keeping each other sane.
Though well-paced and never boring, this tried and true story in itself is nothing to boast about. Nor is the cinematography, which is often bland and unimaginative. It is the acting that is the movie’s most engaging aspect, despite the cast being refined to just five main actors.
Angeli Bayani (Terry) strays away from the stereotypical image of a housemaid, embodying a kindness and motherly love that gives new life to this familiar role, especially in scenes alongside Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) in which the pair look faultlessly natural with one another.
Cementing herself as the true star of the show is Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann who plays Jiale’s mother, Hwee Leng, delivering a stunning performance that runs a gamut of characteristics, including affection, jealousy, disdain and even comedy alongside her on-screen husband Teck (Chen Tianwen). Yann Yann’s ability to switch between these emotions while maintaining the exhaustion of pregnancy is remarkable and totally relatable on a global scale.
Despite its solid grounding and fine acting, director Chen refrains from exploring the deeper issues of this time period, making for a somewhat rose-tinted vision of the world he grew up in. The notion that the Lim family is struggling is never really present, with money issues doing little to hamper their lifestyle, while Jiale’s bad behavior (the telltale signs of a psychological issue, though this is never disclosed) has no apparent repercussions. Scenes that demand attention are followed with banality and detachment that ultimately deprive the film of any honest sympathy.
Ilo Ilo is released nationwide on 2nd May 2014.
Watch the trailer for Ilo Ilo here: