Dubai: One of the must-see films in this year’s Dubai International Film Festival (Diff) is the award-winning movie Ilo Ilo.
Set during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the movie explores the story of an ordinary Singaporean family struggling under increasing economic and domestic pressure. The film is the debut feature of Singaporean director Anthony Chen and it features an international cast, including Singaporean actor Chen Tian Wen, Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann and Filipino actress Angeli Bayani.
The Singaporean couple Teck Lim (Chen Tian Wen) and Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) are raising an only child, ten-year-old Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), while another one is on the way. Tension starts to build up when Teck loses his job as a sales executive and can’t bring himself to tell his family of the bad news. Hwee, despite being pregnant, has to deal with the rigorous demands of her full-time work as a secretary. The couple hires Terry (Angeli Bayani), a nanny from the Philippines, to help look after Jiale after the child starts to act out in response to the rising tension.
Ilo Ilo was first released at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, making history by winning the prestigious Camera d’Or for Best First Film, making Chen is the first Singaporean to win a top award at Cannes for a feature film. The film screens today at 6.30pm at Mall of the Emirates.
“Ilo Ilo is based on our director’s childhood,” says Bayani, who is with Chen as the Dubai International Film Festival this week. “He had a nanny from Iloilo, a province of the Philippines located in the Western Visayas region, who took care of him for years. It is not completely autobiographical, I should say, but it inspired his film. The whole film revolves around relationships,” .
Chen adds: “The film is inspired by lots of childhood memories. When I was growing up in Singapore, I had a Filipino nanny for eight years. She came in when I was four and she left when I was twelve. The film is me remembering my childhood — certain incidents, certain people, certain moments when I was growing up.”
The movie is not typical of other films where housemaids or nannies are depicted as mere servants.
“I think this is the first time or one of the few times where the role of the housemaid or the helper is actually humanised,” says Chen. “I think in a lot of films, particularly in Asia, the role of the helper or the housemaid is always very much tokenistic or patronising. This is not just a housemaid that she will come in to serve tea and go away or opens the door and says ‘yes sir, yes mam’. No. The housemaid in the movie has a real character, real personality. She has her own hopes, her own fears. She really stands up in her own two feet among other characters, even the employers.”
“I think the message of the movie depends on the person watching it. My take on the movie is I would like OFW (Overseas Filipino Workers), in particular, to take their jobs seriously. Based on my experience while doing the film, it’s not just a job that you are being paid to do. It’s a huge responsibility taking care of and helping raise other people’s children,” says Bayani. “I think that OFW’s should pay attention to that because it’s a crucial role.
“Also, the employers should understand that the housemaid, who helps them with the household chores and raising their children, also has her own family. I would like them to see each other as human beings, as collaborators or maybe as friends. I’ve heard of stories of employers and employees developing good personal relationship and I think that’s really priceless.”
The film received a positive response during its first screening at Diff on Saturday.
“The reception so far was really good. I was asking myself if people would come to watch the movie, and I was surprised that it was a full house,” says Chen. “Of course, there were Filipino viewers and a lot of expatriates here in Dubai who have helpers who also watched the screening. It was really a lovely response that we have. I’m looking forward for people to watch the next screening of the movie,” says Chen.
With his film doing well in prestigious film festivals, the award-winning Singaporean director maintains there is no formula to being a good director. “It’s always about opening your eyes, being honest with yourself. As long as one has real integrity in the filmmaking and as long as you are honest with the characters, honest about the real situations, good films will come out of your hand.”
Aside from reaping awards, Chen says he gets immense pleasure seeing his movies shown on the big screen. “I think it’s about having a project come together. A lot of times it starts with a vision and an idea of a work. When all the elements come together, when you put the film together and when you see it on big screen, it really makes you feel good. It feels that you have achieved something. Film is a very complicated thing, it’s a very collaborative process, but when you see all the elements come together, you feel like the vision is fulfilled,” says Chen.
Ilo Ilo has also been shortlisted for the 86th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Langauge Film as Singapore’s entry to Oscars for Best Foreign Language film.
For Bayani, being shortlisted is already a big reward. “I’m very proud and overwhelmed by all of the accolades that the film has received. We are being shortlisted in the Oscars and the announcement will come this January. I’m very excited about that, we all are. The film has sort of taken a life of its own. I’m just really happy and proud of it.”
The final Oscar nominations list will be announced on January 16.