Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s recipe for ‘Ilo Ilo’ success

Peace Chiu
(From L-R) Yeo Yann Yann, Chen Tianwen, Angeli Bayani, Koh Jia Ler and Anthony Chen at "Ilo Ilo's" press conference. (Yahoo! photo)
(From L-R) Yeo Yann Yann, Chen Tianwen, Angeli Bayani, Koh Jia Ler and Anthony Chen at "Ilo Ilo's" press conference. (Yahoo! photo)

What’s the formula for success for Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s award-winning film “Ilo Ilo”?

Apparently it’s learning how to roll with the punches.

During a Friday press conference at Marina Bay Sands, the 29-year-old director revealed some setbacks he faced during the filming of “Ilo Ilo”, including the pregnancy of Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann — who plays Hwee Leng (the mother).

While his initial thought was to recast the role and find another actress, Yeo managed to convince him otherwise during a meeting at a Bugis café which lasted five hours.

Yeo recalled telling Chen, “I won’t change too much. My body will be the same.”

Chen joked, “She [Yeo] is a very charming lady. Directors get fooled. I bought it and I went back and rewrote the entire script. The mother became pregnant.”

He even seized the opportunity to shoot the actual delivery of the baby:

Chen said he was the only one to witness the delivery of Yeo’s baby, as her husband was chased out of the operating theatre, because the hospital has a policy that no family members are allowed, just in case they can’t control their emotions and faint.

Chen joked that to prepare for his first time witnessing child birth, he watched at least 10 natural child births and at least 10 Caesarean as advised by Yeo’s doctor.

Choice of child star

While it didn’t take much for Chen to cast Yeo as the mother – the two have worked together previously in Chen’s short film “Ah Ma” – the director took 10 months to cast Jiale (the son) in “Ilo Ilo”.

His team saw 8,000 children from different primary schools, auditioned 2,000 of them and eventually selected 150 for a six-month workshop.

Ironically, Koh Jia Ler, the eventual choice for the role of Jiale, wasn’t among the 150 that were selected for the workshop.

In fact, Koh went to ask one of Chen's casting assistants, "Can I also join," after seeing his friend being selected for the workshop.

Koh’s performance during the workshop eventually sealed the deal for Chen.

At its debut screening at the Cannes Film Festival in May, "Ilo Ilo" -- which chronicles the relationship between a family of three and their newly-arrived Filipino maid, Aunty Terry -- received a 15-minute standing ovation from the audience, despite a technical glitch which interrupted the screening of the film.

The film, made with an estimated budget of S$500,000 and in part funded by Ngee Ann Polytechnic and the Singapore Film Commission, was later awarded the Camera d'Or award -- an award which recognises the best debut feature film in the competition.

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