Roller-coaster ride for Singaporean director Anthony Chen since Cannes success

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Anthony Chen and his brother reunite with their former maid, Aunty Terry. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Chen)
Anthony Chen and his brother reunite with their former maid, Aunty Terry. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Chen)

It’s been a roller-coaster ride for Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen since he became the first Singaporean to win the Camera d'Or for Best First Film at the Cannes Film Festival in May with his first feature film, “Ilo Ilo”.

In an interview with Yahoo! Singapore, the 29-year-old talks about his recent reunion with Aunty Terry, his maid 16 years ago, whose relationship with his family inspired the award-winning film. He also shares about the film's latest premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival and how he just couldn’t catch a break after Cannes.

Reuniting with Aunty Terry

Chen said a man called Charles Lim, who works in the public relations industry and has some contacts at Ilo Ilo (a province in the Philippines), was so moved by the trailer of the film that he decided to do a search for Aunty Terry. His staff helped too.

After they managed to contact her — she now lives in Ilo Ilo with her long-term partner — they got in touch with Chen, who then made a trip to Ilo Ilo with his youngest brother to catch up with Aunty Terry.

Chen said she lives in a basic wooden shed that has only one light bulb. The house doesn’t have a gas stove, so Aunty Terry has to use charcoal and firewood to cook.

Chen said the reunion was "a mixed bag of emotions" for him. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Chen)
Chen said the reunion was "a mixed bag of emotions" for him. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Chen)

The reunion was “a mixed bag of emotions” for Chen.

Ironically, the director, who is so skilled in telling stories about human emotions and relationships, said it was “really hard to describe” how he felt.

But he still attempted to recall the experience, recounting, “It’s been 16 years since I last saw her, she has really aged so much. But she still has the same kindness and there is still a very, very strong-spirited woman in there.”

It was a more emotional experience for Aunty Terry and Chen's brother, who were closer. She brought him up from when he was a one-month-old baby to the time when he was an eight-year-old boy. They also shared a room.

Chen said, “She was very happy to see us, it was very tearful.”

He added that Aunty Terry didn’t expect to see them because it had been so many years.

“She wrote us a letter one year after we parted, but we moved shortly after she returned to the Philippines. Obviously the letter didn’t get to us, so she didn’t expect to see us again,” said Chen.

It was a very “surreal” and “unbelievable” experience for Aunty Terry, who kept saying “I still don’t understand what you all are doing here.”

“She remembers everyone’s name, even my relatives. She has also kept all these pictures of us [his family] inside a pouch which she said my mum gave her and she brings it wherever she goes,” added Chen.

The reunion will not be the last time the trio will get to spend time together though -- a Philippine airline will be sponsoring Aunty Terry's flight to Singapore for her to attend the premiere of Chen's film. It will be her first time leaving the Philippines since she returned there 16 years ago.

Jet-setting lifestyle

Work-wise, Chen has been busy with promotions for “Ilo Ilo”.

In fact, the director said he couldn’t catch a break with all the media interviews.

“For the next one and a half years, I’m going to be flying around, living on a jet plane. The film is going to about 20 to 30 festivals. I think it’s going to be a very, very tiring one and a half years,” he said.

But he’s still grateful and thankful for the success he has achieved. Most recently, Ilo Ilo was shown at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Chen's film got a good reception in Melbourne. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Chen)
Chen's film got a good reception in Melbourne. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Chen)

It premiered in Australia on 5 August and the film was scheduled for two screenings, with both sold out.

Overall, Chen is glad that he managed to evoke memories for many Singaporeans who watched the film.

He said, “Some of those Singaporeans grew up in the 90s and they commented that the costumes and characters of the film were very authentic.”

Others said “Ilo Ilo” is unlike any film they’ve seen, particularly the ending, which is very “open ended” and “lyrical”, added Chen.

“Ilo Ilo” will be out in Singapore on 29 August.

Check out the trailer for the film:

But if you can’t wait till its release and need a quick dose of the film, check out the “Ilo Ilo” exhibit from 9 to 27 August at BooksActually to find out more about what went on behind the scenes or to have a closer look at the Lim family's photo album.

Chen will be attending the exhibit for a short meet-and-greet session on 25 August at 2pm.

Related stories:

Singaporean filmmaker wins Camera d'Or at Cannes for "Ilo Ilo"

S’pore film to debut at Cannes Film Festival

Meet all the new faces chosen for Jack Neo’s new movie ‘The Lion Men’

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