Family ties: Anthony Chen’s award-winning ‘Ilo Ilo’ explores life of a Filipino maid in Singapore


Anthony Chen may be only 29 years old, but his deep humanity and keen understanding of people, with all of their conflicts and contradictions, stamp him as an old and very wise soul. These gifts are at the forefront of his glowing, intimately scaled debut feature, Ilo Ilo.

The title is the name of a province in the Philippines, the home of one of the main characters, Terry (Angeli Bayani), a domestic worker in depressed 1997 Singapore. Her employers are a pregnant woman, Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann), whose bitchy bossiness cannot be completely attributed to hormones, and her whipped, out-of-work husband, Teck (Chen Tian Wen). Their little boy, an impossible, unmitigated brat named Jiale (Koh Ji Ler), totally rules their roost, but he meets his match in the gentle but quietly strong Terry, as their relationship, marked by many a combative moment, eventually develops into a deep bond.

Chen takes this family unit, enclosed in a brightly lit, small and somewhat sterile flat, and creates an entire universe of weltering emotions and interrelated tensions. Each character is convincingly complex with moments of surprise, as all humans are (and are so rarely portrayed onscreen). Not a whole lot happens here, apart from Jiale's near-constant misbehavior, but such are Chen's febrile psychological knowledge and elegantly assured handling of his pungent material, you are as fully drawn into his film as by the most skillfully wrought thriller. You come to care deeply for these people, as the movie bristles with life in all of its moment-to-moment, unexpected perversity and odd instances of joy.

Winner of the Camera d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Chen shared his thoughts on the April 4 Film Movement release with Film Journal International.

Film Journal International: What inspired you to make this film?
Anthony Chen: I find that in your mid-20s, your childhood comes back to haunt you. We had a Filipino domestic helper when I was growing up in Singapore. She was with us for eight years, and her name was Teresa—the same as the character in the film. Those memories, of the time I spent with her, came flooding back, and you realize everything isn’t as simple as it seems. Looking back at the dynamics between my Mum and my maid, between both the women and the kids in the family—that conflict was worth investigating. I wouldn't say it was autobiographical, but it is very much inspired by my memories and observations of childhood.

FJI: Where did you find your wonderful actors? The nanny as well as the child, mother and father.

AC: It was a grueling ten-month process. We went to over 20 schools and saw over 8,000 children, of which 2,000 were auditioned and we eventually chose our kid after over 100 hours of workshops.

We did a short trip to the Philippines to meet a whole bunch of actresses for the role of the maid, some of whom have worked with notable directors, such as Brillante Mendoza and Lav Diaz. Eventually I settled upon Angeli Bayani: There was a fragility in her size—she was rather small in height—and I thought her personal background was very useful for the character.

For the parents, I met almost every actor in the country that were in the right age group. I had worked with the mother, Yeo Yann Yann, before in a short, and I cast her rather early in the process. I thought of recasting her when she shocked me with the news that she was pregnant. In fact, I thought long and hard about this, and eventually rewrote the entire script to accommodate a pregnant mother, which I feel added a new layer to the story. When we started filming, she was more than halfway through her pregnancy.

FJI: Bayani is brilliant. My Korean mother in Hawaii has a few businesses where she has Filipina help and I recognized a lot of behavior, the professionally servile demeanor (always "Ma'am"), which can mask hidden depths, intelligence and ambitions. Also, the relationship between the nanny and child is so wonderfully real—not sentimental, with ups and downs, love and hate, really extraordinary. Was that all in your script or did it develop on the set with the actors?

AC: A lot of people actually think most of the film is improvised, but the truth is I'm very dogmatic with my approach. Most of what you see in the film is in the script. In fact, I was quite adamant that the actors were not allowed to change a single word on the page. But I wanted it to feel real and natural, so I did multiple takes to strip the actors of their performance. I wanted it raw and organic.

FJI: I also loved the way you ended it, avoiding any melodramatic denouement like a big messy crisis with the nanny, her hidden cache of money, discovery of her other job, etc. Such subtlety is indeed rare in cinema from anyone, at any age, and reminded me of the work of such as De Sica and Ozu.
AC: Ozu happens to be one of my favorite filmmakers. I feel my filmmaking is very much about restraint and subtlety. I'm very wary of going into sentimentality or melodrama, and, yes, this film could very easily head down that way.

FJI: How much was your budget and how long was the filming?  Where did it take place? That was a real apartment, yes?

AC: The budget was US$500,000. Very tight and difficult to work with. We filmed for 25 shooting days entirely in Singapore.

It was a real apartment and everything was shot on location. In fact, I spent weeks hunting down that layout of an apartment which was exactly the shape and layout as the apartment that I grew up in during the 1990s.

FJI: Technically, your film is so strong. I loved the look of it: You caught the slightly sterile bourgeois ambiance of the apartment perfectly. Talk about your cinematographer.
AC: I worked with Benoît Soler, a French cinematographer. We went to school together at the National Film and Television School in the U.K. and he had shot a few of my shorts. We had already built some form of chemistry and I trusted him a lot. It was a debut feature for both of us. I was worried initially about having a foreigner lens the film, as I didn't like the romanticized version of Asia that I see a lot when foreign filmmakers try to capture Asia. The last thing I wanted was that. But I feel that Benoît understood what I was trying to do.

We agreed at some point that we were going to shoot the entire film handheld, which we did. And I made him light the set so that no lights would be in the way of my actors. He mostly had to hang everything from above, or rig them outside.

You will notice that a lot of shots feel unusually intimate. What I wanted to capture was a kind of domestic intimacy, one that is rarely seen in cinema, but which we experience every day with our family (with our parents, our kids, our brothers and sisters, etc). Which is why I capture the family all together peeing in the toilet, having showers, etc. That to me is how one experiences family.

FJI: What are your feelings about the use of film music? Your film is so subtle in this respect.
AC: When I was initially planning the film, I really thought I would score the film properly. But when we started cutting the film, my editors and I realized that we did not know where to put the music cues. By the time we were in our third cut, I sent it to my composer, who met me and said, "I don't usually say this, but I really think the emotions are so strong that you really don't need any music." This reaffirmed what we suspected, and so the music that one really remembers is the final track at the end of the film, which was already planned in the script.

FJI: You won the Camera d'Or at Cannes. What was that experience like? I heard you were given a standing ovation at the screening as well.
AC: It was surreal. I felt like a small, humble film like ours was given a voice, a platform to shine by the Camera d'Or jury, especially at a festival like Cannes where there are so many bombastic, loud films around.

I had always thought the film was very culturally specific, set in a local context of Singapore, but it was the world premiere at Cannes that revealed to me how universal the film actually is. People were applauding and crying. It was electrifying and it was then when I knew we had created something special.

FJI: Where did you receive your film education?
AC: I went to film school twice: a three-year film school in Singapore at the age of 17 and then I did a two-year Masters in Film Directing later on at the National Film and Television School in the U.K., which is why some people say my sensibility is very much a hybrid of East and West.

FJI:  What were some of your earlier works?
AC: I made a lot of short films before. By the time I completed my feature, I had made 10 shorts. My shorts did rather well, some of them were selected and awarded at festivals such as Berlin and Cannes. And I like to think they helped hone my craft and prepared me towards feature filmmaking. There was no way I could have come so far without all those shorts.

FJI: What are you future projects?
AC: The next film will probably be an English-language film working with actors from the Western world. I'm still considering my next steps, but I hope things become clearer soon. I can't wait to make another film, I'm itching for it.

FJI: Which filmmakers/artists inspire you?
AC: Hou Hsiao Hsien, Edward Yang, Ang Lee, Lee Chang Dong, Hirokazu Kore-eda.

FJI: We here in America sometimes look at Singapore as a somewhat rigid, repressed—though very orderly and highly functioning—country. Is that perception accurate?

AC: I wouldn't say that's inaccurate, but we are many other things as well. It's interesting when people tell me seeing Ilo Ilo makes them feel for the first time that there are real people living in Singapore, real families with children, real problems and issues, struggling with life, like everyone else elsewhere.

FJI: What was your army experience like, especially for an artist?
AC: I enjoyed it much more than I thought. I think it really pushed one to one's limits. During my basic training, I think I was fitter than I could ever be, and probably won't be ever again. I actually made a short during my two years of national service, Ah Ma, in 2006, which eventually won a prize in Cannes. So I guess nothing can stop an artist from making art.