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Q&A with Anthony Chen: Ilo Ilo

A scene from Ilo Ilo.
A scene from Ilo Ilo.
Ray Kouguell
Growing up presents all kinds of challenges.  When your parents fail to pay close attention, there are problems.  The solution is never easy.  VOA’s Ray Kouguell tells us about a new movie that takes an unusual look at the situation:


KOUGUELL:  When economic times are tough, just about everyone suffers.  A new international award-winning film called “Ilo Ilo” tells the story about how a middle class family struggles to cope with Asia’s financial crisis in 1997 Singapore.

A 10-year-old boy named Jiale is a troublemaker in school with parents too busy trying to earn a living with not enough time or energy to properly look after him. So they hire Terry, a 28-year-old live-in maid and nanny from the Philippines to take care of the daily chores of cleaning, cooking and keep an eye on Jiale. 

Her presence faces strong defiance and bullying from Jiale and resentment from his mother who is pregnant, tired from her clerical job at a shipping company and leery of Terry’s capabilities. The family situation worsens when the father loses his sales job and struggles to find other work.  Over time, Jiale warms up to his caregiver who he refers to as “Auntie Terry.”  It’s a relationship that antagonizes his mother who grows more worried that she’s losing control over her son.

The emotional bonds and tensions of a family under pressure are something ‘Ilo Ilo” director-writer Anthony Chen characterizes in very honest and thoughtful detail.  I talked with Chen, born in Singapore and now based in London, who told me it’s a story very close to him.

CHEN: It’s very much a personal film. It’s a film inspired by a lot of childhood memories. While I was growing up, I had a Filipino maid as well, working in the household and she worked with us for eight years. She came when I was four and she left when I was twelve. So it’s very much my observation of family, my observation of childhood, my observation of growing up in Singapore in the 1990s.

KOUGUELL: The film is character driven. Was it difficult to reflect on the true story aspects when you put it together?

CHEN: When I started, it was more autobiographical. I think when you try and put real life into a film, it doesn’t have real dramatic structure; it doesn’t really work so much. It became clear when I took a few steps back and I became more objective about the material and started to click.

KOUGUELL: Is resentment towards a live-in maid and nanny typical for both the child and the mother?

CHEN: It’s a phenomenon that is very common in Singapore. In Singapore, every ten households, about four to five would hire a live-in maid from a foreign country like the Philippines and Indonesia. It comes out from a very natural mother instinct of mothers trying to cling back, their children to cling back their position of the family. Unfortunately, having a maid in Singapore is not a bourgeois thing. It’s very much a very pragmatic decision, because 80 percent of Singapore is middle class and both parents usually go to work and they need to bring in the bacon and the only way they could do that is to hire to look after the children.

KOUGUELL: What kind of strains did your family face with the maid who perhaps became a surrogate mother and friend?

CHEN: You know, you start with not knowing her and it’s all a little bit of culture shock for everyone - your parents are not home in the day. She’s the one with you in the daytime at home, and slowly you develop sort of feelings, you develop a sort of relationship and she doesn’t just cook for you; she cares for you, she does things for you. She slowly takes over almost a role of a playmate, as well as a good friend or so, I guess.

KOUGUELL: How did you come up with the title of the movie?

CHEN: Ilo Ilo was literally the first word I wrote on the page when I started writing the film, because that was literally the only thing that I remember of my Filipino maid when she was with us.  Ilo Ilo is actually where my real life maid comes from. She’s from Ilo Ilo, a province in the Philippines.

KOUGUELL: The movie is culturally specific. What do you think foreign audiences can take away from this?

CHEN: I think the issues of family of growing up, of migration, of class, of struggling of the economic crisis; I think these are issues that strike a chord with audiences anywhere that actually make me understand that as much as we are all very different culturally, we are very, very much the same because we all share one single humanity.

KOUGUELL: Chen’s movie succeeds in giving a compelling look at complicated family dynamics, at times bordering on dysfunction.  Powerful acting performances especially from Filipino actress Angeli Bayani as Terry make “Ilo Ilo” an absorbing film to watch, so much so it was awarded the 2013 Camera D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for best FIRST feature film.  It also won Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best original screenplay and best supporting actress at the Golden Horse Awards in Taipei. They are all richly deserved.

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