Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen arrived at last year's Cannes Film Festival with his debut feature Ilo Ilo, beginning a journey that would take him and his film around the globe. Starring actors little known outside the Southeast Asian city-state, the family drama nevertheless warmed audience hearts and, perhaps even more surprisingly—especially for Chen—a major win at the prestigious festival.
Set in the late ’90s, the film takes audiences inside a middle-class household living in one of the city's numerous apartment towers. Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) is an adolescent troublemaker who is a constant thorn in the side of his parents. Teck (Tian Wen Chen) works a stressful sales job that is on shaky ground, while his mother Hwee Leng (Yann Yann Yeo) is a dutiful office worker pregnant with the couple's second child. Jiale is a headache both at home and school, fighting with teachers and classmates, while acting up at home. Hoping to alleviate household stress, the couple hires a Filipino maid, Teresa (Angeli Bayani) despite looming financial worries.
Teck, in fact, loses his job but keeps quiet as he desperately tries to maintain the family's middle-class lifestyle as Asia's financial crisis begins to tighten its grip. Jiale, meanwhile, is not exactly cooperative with Teresa, who disciplines the child partly out of fear she may lose face to her bosses. But the relationship eventually blooms as Teresa, herself a mother separated from her child, extends her maternal instincts to Jiale.
The pair grow so close in fact, that his mother becomes increasingly jealous. Jiale prefers her cooking and seems to prefer her company. Meanwhile, the family faces a financial toll as Teck's career situation continues to flounder.
Ilo Ilo, titled after the province in the Philippines where Teresa is from, was awarded the Camera d'Or in Cannes, by last year's jury headed by Steven Spielberg. The win gave Chen and Ilo Ilo instant recognition in Singapore and beyond. FilmLinc Daily spoke with Chen about Cannes, family drama, and the process of creating Ilo Ilo, which was his country's Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film in 2013. Ilo Ilo will open at the Film Society of Lincoln Center this weekend, kicking off its theatrical run in the U.S.
FilmLinc Daily: Congratulations on winning the Camera d'Or at last year's Cannes. I noticed you dedicated the award to Singapore and gave recognition to the domestic worker who lived in your home growing up. I assume she was the inspiration for Ilo Ilo?
Anthony Chen: In a way yes. I think in Singapore you spent most of your childhood growing up and chasing grades in order to earn money and have a career. I think childhood gets buried or repressed for a long time. But a few years ago, all these memories of my childhood came flooding back. I had a strong recollection about this person who brought us up and lived with [my family] for eight years. So in a way, it all started from there…
FL: But the film is not exactly autobiographical?
AC: No it's not, I wouldn't say it's completely autobiographical. Maybe 60 to 70 percent of the film came from characters I lived with and observed when I was growing up. But the thing is, when you take real life and make it into a dramatic film, the challenge is that real life doesn't have dramatic structure and I had to dramatize and reorganize the way some of the events came about.
FL: So what was the reaction to the Camera d'Or win in Singapore?
AC: It was interesting… I remember two weeks later that there were producers who work in Singapore telling me that they were so happy and that it felt like Singapore had just won the World Cup. It was really special and I think most people on the street don't know exactly what the Cannes Film Festival is, though they have a sense that it's a very prestigious film event. There was a sense of celebration. This was the first time Singapore had won an award in Cannes for a feature film.
FL: Live-in domestic help is probably less common among Western middle classes than in Singapore and other parts of Asia. Were you surprised that the story translated to both Cannes audiences and to the jury?
AC: I think what's interesting is that we had this amazing premiere with a 15-minute standing ovation. I looked around and saw all these Europeans in tears. I was very skeptical whether Western audiences would understand the situation with maids that are more typical in this part of Asia, but it seemed they all got it. We had another [post-premiere] screening with a Q&A and despite some cultural differences, the film reminded them of au pairs that some of them had grown up with. It's quite different, but at the same time maybe not so different. We screened in North America and people remarked that you could substitute the people seen in this film with an [affluent] family with a foreign maid.
FL: How did you find your actors? The boy played by Koh Jia Ler is quite rambunctious but gives a lot of heart to the film along with Angeli Bayani who plays the maid, while the parents played by Tian Wen Chen and Yann Yann Yeo are a sobering personalities as they struggle with a sudden financial crisis.
AC: It was a very hard undertaking to find them. There was a 10-month casting process. For the kid, we went to over 20 schools and met with 8,000 children. From [that group] we formally auditioned 2,000 and we short-listed 150 and followed that with six months of workshops with the kids before we finally nailed this boy down. All the kids in the classroom you see in the movie came out of the process. For the other actors, I knew I wanted to work with professional actors because I couldn't deal with [an entire cast] of nonprofessionals. But it also meant looking at every actor in Singapore within that certain age group. For the Filipina maid, we actually flew to the Philippines and saw 40 actresses. For me, performance is a huge part of my filmmaking.
FL: Obviously the audience can't help but feel sympathy for Teresa, the maid. She's certainly not overtly mistreated though there are times when there's a coldness on the part of her bosses. She lives with this family but is an outsider and has had to leave her own family to work there… Has there been a growing awareness or compassion for people in Singapore represented by Teresa?
AC: I'm not sure about compassion. With the issue of foreign workers and migrants. We can always talk about issues of immigration etc. But I am concerned about the issues of differences in this story. People from an outside community going into another community will always face differences that they have to engage. There will be nice interactions and not-so-nice interactions. There will be struggles with these differences. I don't think everyone treats migrants in a very humane way generally in Singapore. That's not always true, but if you look at the news in Singapore in papers or tabloids or TV news, it's always derogatory. The stories are focused on maids abusing the kids they're supposed to be looking after or stealing money or running away. For me though, it's about bringing a human face back to these people. I don't know if it's being compassion, but to bring back a human face—not only to the maid but also her employers. Everyone has flaws. They are all beautiful and ugly.
FL: A poignant moment demonstrating differences in Ilo Ilo was when the family went to visit the grave of the grandfather and they brought the maid. They were doing a ritual that appeared to be Buddhist and the family expected Teresa to follow along with incense and prayers. She did it but you could see she's struggling and uncomfortable since her background is Catholic.
AC: Yes, and I think it's a very common thing. I don't think the mother was being evil here expecting her to take part, but I think people at times completely lose sight of sensitivities. It was a comical moment for audiences during this scene, but it's through these moments of humor when you start to remember where you've done something similar in the past with someone—either by religion or something else.
FL: I read somewhere that you were concerned about how audiences would receive the film in Singapore. It's not a readily popular genre coming from a Singaporean filmmaker.
AC: I think what surprised me is how audiences all over the world have received it; there's something about it that translates. I'm not sure exactly what it is, but from all of my screenings from Russia to India, Europe and North America, there's been a consistent response, which I'm glad about. I think for Singapore, I was concerned because audiences there are very used to seeing slapstick comedy, very brash in-your-face filmmaking. Many of these films would not travel beyond the shores of Singapore. I didn't know how they would deal with something that's delicate, nuanced, and in your face. But I was proven wrong. The film did very well in Singapore and was the highest-grossing Singaporean film in 2013. I was pleasantly surprised.
FL: There is definitely some things that are universal about this family. They're middle class but are suddenly confronted with a money woes and they're fighting to maintain their place in the middle class, which is something many people can relate to. The 2008 financial crisis in the U.S. and the West generally made that even more true.
AC: I do think so… People asked me about this film and why has it resonated in so many areas of the world. But most Singapore films aren't seen overseas, but this is a unique case where a film from Singapore has translated. I think it's because there are these themes and issues of childhood, growing up, migration, of class and economic crisis has all combined together. But the key thing, I think that has allowed people to respond to the film—and I might be wrong, but having been on the road with this for 10 months—is that there's an honesty in the film and that's what they're relating to. It's not the most expensive, stylish, or original family drama. But there is an honestly and sincerity there. It comes from a genuine place and I think people see that.
FL: Your short films have dealt with family situations as well. Is this a purposeful pattern or is it coincidence—or both?
AC: I wish I could answer. I guess I'd need to go through psychoanalysis. What's interesting is that if you look at the directors I admire, they're very engaged with domestic life. Taiwanese directors like Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien or classic Japanese directors like Ozu to even contemporary Japanese directors like Kore-eda and even like Ang Lee, who I'm a huge fan of. They're all interested in the domestic. I don't know, maybe I can answer that question in 20 years [laughs].
Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo opens Friday at the Film Society. Click here for schedule, tickets, and more info.