Joshua Reviews Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo [Theatrical Review]

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Financial struggles have been the source of cinematic meditating for generations, but with the recent fall of ostensibly the entire world economic system, the strife caused by economic struggles and the gape between classes have become fodder for some of the best and most interesting dramas of the modern age. However, most, at least most that get any traction here, are set stateside and are seemingly afraid to look at the events of recent financial struggles as anything more than window dressing for thinly veiled preaching and heavy handed philosophizing.

That said, there are a few gems to be found out of this type of picture, and oddly enough, the most recent example of this type of picture working wonders happens to come to us from none other than Singapore.

Entitled Ilo Ilo, this new film from writer/director Anthony Chen takes us to the aforementioned location, and even back all the way to 1997, looking at Asia’s financial crisis during that time period while grounding it with a dramatic story that is both universal and deeply moving.

The film introduces us to Jiale Lim, a youngster with a penchant for lashing out at authority figures and all but ignoring his mother and father. Speaking of the boy’s mother and father, the pair are on the brink of separation as while they may seem like a well off middle class trio, with a second child on the way and an uneasy job market given the financial problems of that time period, they are overworked and even more so over stressed. But that’s not the half of it. The family brings in a new nanny, Teresa, a Filipino immigrant that begins to grow closer and closer to the antagonistic young boy at this film’s center. Becoming more and more a part of this troubled home and family, Teresa centers this picture as a beautifully toned drama and character study instead of just a heavy handed look at social structure during uncertain economic times.

Arriving in theaters on April 4 following a series of runs on the festival circuit (including a Golden Camera win at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival), this film is a welcome pre-cursor to what is set to be the start of this year’s big blockbuster season. Captain America: The Winter Soldier bows this weekend, and films don’t get much more different than that bombastic Marvel picture and this deeply personal piece of work. Chen is the film’s real takeaway here, as being both writer and director allows him to prove himself as one of the most assured young artists working. This being his first feature, there is a maturity and tonal assurance in the screenplay that allows the dramatic beats to breath like the touching and human bits of real drama they truly are, while giving palpable life to the moments of youthful comedy and playfulness. A truly emotional and resonant piece of film writing, the only thing that outdoes the top notch screenplay is the intimate aesthetic with which Chen paints his picture. Unfussy and low key, the camera rarely makes itself more than a stationary member of the story, allowing the almost uniformly great performances some true-blue breathing room. Wonderfully designed sets and costumes allow the period of 1997 to be fully realized, but only as a natural vehicle for this story, instead of a nostalgic piece of costume filmmaking, breathing a great sense of naturalism into this melodic picture.

It also helps that the performances here are, as mentioned above, universally fantastic. Koh Jia Ler is a revelation here as Jiale, a child performance on par with any of the greatest we’ve ever seen. It’s raw, and one can tell that he’s a very “green” actor, but there’s an energy and an angry melancholy to his performance that is the perfect distillation of what that age truly feels like With a crumbling home life, the lashing out feels inspired and vital, in turn making the events here all the more powerful. Yann Yann Yeo and Tian Wen Chen are both equally superb here as Mother and Father, giving rather solid performances both in their moments together and, particularly Tian Wen Chen, alone or with Angeli Bayani’s Teresa. Bayani great as well, rounding out a quartet of performances that are both completely of this time and esoteric to this point in Singapore’s history, and yet brazenly universal and relatable. Spearheaded by a turn from a young actor far beyond his years, this is a wonderfully dense motion picture with great performances that truly ground this film.

Taking a look at gaps throughout Singapore’s cultural landscape, be it based on class, age or even race, Chen’s picture is an assured tale of a child growing up in a world of pure uncertainty, and a father whose ego is about as dead as a door nail. Toss in a mother who gets this building feeling that her stance as her son’s “mother” may be slipping and a maid who becomes connected to the previously mentioned child in ways she never saw coming, and you have a domestic drama that is one of the year’s most quaint and resounding motion pictures. It’s a tad slight, as not much truly “happens” during the run time of this film, but if you dig deep enough, and give yourself over to this narrative, the emotional power each moment packs will be just enough to leave you reeling. Bound to get overlooked this month, this is most certainly a film to keep an eye out for as it makes its way through its release.