So we went to see Ilo Ilo last night, the Singaporean film that won the Camera d’or at the Cannes film festival about a little boy whose absent parents lead to his upbringing being taken over by a filipina maid.
The cinematography is a bit shaky and there are not that many artistic stills, and the whole 90s Singapore vibe with our wan grey skies and generally colorless habitat is I think easier to achieve during video editing than color boosting your clips (like the difference between using instagram and photoshop). So I think the main factor that led to its Cannes win is the authenticity of the story telling.
The accents are not masked, he’s got the typical middle-class singaporean family + maid down to a T. The child actor (whose name is actually Jiale) was fantastic at being alternately truculent and sweet – amazing depth for a child actor. I know, Jack Neo’s films are also super Singaporean, but the difference is that his films are intended to entertain the local audience (and do in fact stop there), whereas Anthony Chen’s film is incredibly effective/impactful on an international stage. I tried to watch the movie from a foreigner’s perspective and there were so many amazing gobbets of the Singaporean lifestyle one could immediately pick up –
e.g. our parents’ obsession with status and looking good in front of their extended family members – points out exactly how unaffectionate siblings in our parents generation can be – where things like how much money you put in an angpow is a competition with your siblings! Sibling rivalry does not stop past adolescence, and most of us are not introspective/mature enough to put that tomfoolery behind us. Parents are most afraid of losing face, because for some reason their entire life is lived out on parade for other people to watch and criticize as they please – because older generation Singaporeans will criticize generously and similarly also take it to heart. The range of subjects they like to cover are things like: you put on weight, how much do you earn at your job, when are you getting married, etc. The full spectrum of awkward and socially inappropriate subjects to discuss over a family dinner are usually hashed out within the first 5 minutes. The lack of honesty (as regards the simple things) between husband and wife is quite rampant too, most marriages (in our parents’ generation) made either early or without too much communication between the engaged couple – both my parents and LZ’s parents were unhappy on their honeymoon – my mum and dad were standing on the deck of a boat off the coast of Perth when he complained of the heat from the sun. My mum told him he could go and stand in the shade if he wanted and he upped and left her side to go stand in the shade. (That’s why I think my dad is a bit aspergers-y this way. Everything is literal. There are no double entendres, everything is lost on him). Of course the female interpretation of such an act is that he opted for his personal comfort over her company, and my mum immediately got upset at him for the rest of the honeymoon. For LZ’s parents I think he brought her to Hawaii because it’s far and exotic (which is apparently supposed to be touching) but the thing is his mum doesn’t like beach holidays. There wasn’t even a discussion as to where to go on their honeymoon. Amazing! I am so glad for phenomena like social evolution – our generation is so much more aware, has so much more open communication with each other, and while we definitely have our faults there is no way we would commit those kind of mistakes in this day and age.
And then there is the over-arcing thread of Getting Rich Quick. The parents in the movie are obsessed with it: copying down the maid’s passport numbers to buy 4D, and their son is an amateur bookie, cutting out the numbers of each day’s 4D announcements in the newspaper and pasting them into a school exercise book to spot patterns in the winning digits. This boy is like primary 3 or 4! Many (older) singaporeans now still like to buy lottery tickets with little to zero statistical analysis of the winning digits. LZ’s grandparents still do, but they are pretty anomalous in that they’ve actually struck the lottery (the big one) twice. They like to buy tickets when unexpected/bizarre things happen – following the v. scientific notion that weird events do not occur singly, so you are more likely to strike the lottery when something weird has already happened to you. E.g. they like to buy lottery tickets when one of their grandchildren does a shit on the floor. I’m not very sure how that is in any way a lucky event but then again the Chinese think that sweeping the floor is bad luck because you’re sweeping your fortune out the door so maybe the idea is that cleanliness => unlucky and dirtiness => lucky?
Anyway I am really glad a slice of Singaporean life made its way to the Cannes, and that people enjoyed learning more about it. My only beef was that this was set in the 90s (when we were growing up) – the fashion and hairstyles and all were SO retro, and corporal punishment was still condoned in schools (the boy got caned in front of the whole school). This may have given the impression that Singapore is a backward place, since nowhere in the movie hints that the landscape/mindsets portrayed in the movie could only be observed a good 2 decades back. The only hint of modernity was the park bench that the mum sat on when she picked up the flyer advertising a self-help-your-financial-fate-is-in-your-hands workshop. – those curved and lacquered benches only entered the scene after the abolishment of sandpit playgrounds – so the continuity guy did not do enough research. This 90s Singapore setting was probably what led the film festival staff to classify the movie as Made in China. An easy mistake, anyone could have made it, considering how many things are made in China. If I had to hedge I would guess that it was made in China too.
Anyway here is the actual point of this post: we were watching the movie at Vivocity last night (I booked tickets there so we could pop by Franc Franc plus it’s near to work) and at this point Ilo Ilo is kinda nearing the end of its run. It’s only grossed about $700-800k in Singapore, which is pathetic compared to movies like Ah Boyz to Men, which grossed nearly $7m. And by pathetic I mean the local audience’s taste is pathetic, not that the film is pathetic. Even LZ’s grandparents refuse to watch any Jack Neo films because, and I quote, “his films have no class”. So we thought that the cinema would be quite empty, with just the straggling remnant of Singaporeans coming to kaypoh to see why this movie won an international award at the Kenners. At the end of the movie, the music was cut about 3 seconds into the credits, and there were some TV people holding cameras inviting Anthony Chen (the director) down to the front of the theatre! With him was the actress who portrayed the mum, her 1-yr old baby (she was pregnant in the show), and Jiale! They came down to promote the show and I guess to see the audience’s reception. It was really cool, the kind of thing you only see in movie premieres. They all looked mad different from in the movie – Jiale was like a young hipster with black glasses and a plaid shirt (and much thinner than he looks on camera, so I guess it’s true what they say about the camera adding 10 pounds), and the mum was so skinny we couldn’t recognize her at all.
Their discourse was all in chinese, and basically encouraged us to invite more people to watch, and that from tomorrow (today) onwards, the tickets to this movie would be buy 3 get 1 free. So I’m doing my plug here: Go watch Ilo Ilo! It’s actually good – the acting, the directing, the storyline. If you would like to donate to Projek Ilo Ilo, which sponsors tickets for our foreign domestic workers to watch the movie and see how much we appreciate their contribution to our society, you can go here.