Thursday, 22 August 2013

Ilo Ilo (爸妈不在家) (2013)

Ilo Ilo is the proverbial swallow that may or may not signal a coming of age of Singapore cinema

There used to be a thriving film industry in Singapore and Malaya, where Cathay and Shaw competed to produce, in sprawling studio lots in Jalan Ampas and Jalan Keris, slick urban comedies, historical epics, kungfu actioners in Malay and Mandarin for Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Originally exhibitors owning chains of cinema halls, the two giants saw virtue in vertical integration and regional expansion. What they did not foresee was overextension as making movies became, for a time, more expensive than showing them. And so the film industry went silent for a long while.

I have mixed feelings about the resurgence of Singapore film. This new creature is not an urbane sophisticate. It doesn’t matter whether the man behind the camera is Cannes favourite Eric Khoo, populist Jack Neo, or arthouse stylists Royston Tan and Boo Junfeng, or the earnest Colin Goh. Singapore cinema is the cinema of misery, peopled by angsty middle class people who are liable to work themselves into a rant about what’s wrong with society. While it makes for good theatre, such an approach, coupled with Singaporean directors’ addiction to the long take, makes for tedious cinema.

Then there’s Ilo Ilo. It’s a slice of life film about a family who hire a Filipino live-in maid. Yet the typical scenes of rage and outrage in Singapore cinema make their way into the mix. Set during the 1997 Asian financial crisis that laid waste to the myth of “Asian values and capitalism”), the film treats viewers to watch once more scenes of overworked, bullied office workers, people losing their jobs and moonlighting through a series of increasingly demeaning odd jobs (which in Singapore, seem to be security guards and taxi drivers), the class snobbery of Singaporeans, the perceived antipathy between ageing Singaporean Chinese Mandarin speakers and their younger English speaking counterparts. It’s a crapsack universe where you’d mistake for 1980s Singapore, if you missed the Tamagotchi toy the little tyke keeps playing in the film.

But I digress. Ilo Ilo is a slice of life film where yes, all that typically Singaporean stuff goes on in the background, but the focus is on the relationship between a prepubescent boy and his live-in maid in a home that’s empty most of the day because both parents work.

In refusing to indulge in the local penchant for the cinema of misery, Anthony Chen makes a case for a compelling character-based storytelling. It’s a quiet form of cinema which may be alien to cinemagoers more used to watching local films where every plot and theme is shouted to them but I’m all for it.

1 comment:

Eternality Tan said...

Hi fellow film enthusiast, nice work! Caught your review link from IMDB external critics. Cheers!