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Local movie Ilo Ilo will tug at heartstrings of every Singaporean

Local film "Ilo Ilo", movie poster. (Yahoo! photo)
Local film "Ilo Ilo", movie poster. (Yahoo! photo)

When homegrown director Anthony Chen won the Cannes d’Or earlier this year with his debut full-length movie Ilo Ilo — plus a standing ovation from the crowd after it was shown at the festival-- there might have been unkind whispers of "first timer's luck".

But after catching the local indie film at a recent private screening, Yahoo! Singapore feels he can safely leave any naysayers in his dust.

The movie is a seamless family drama that has a multi-layered and compelling plot.

Koh Jia Ler (left) and Angeli Bayani (right) in a scene from local film "Ilo Ilo". (YouTube Screengrab)
Koh Jia Ler (left) and Angeli Bayani (right) in a scene from local film "Ilo Ilo". (YouTube Screengrab)

Filipino actress Angeli Bayani plays Teresa, the resilient maid who is forced to adopt a bipolar personality while tackling the family’s spoiled brat son Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) and being subservient to his pregnant mother Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann), as well as unemployed father Teck (Chen Tian Wen).

Teresa is struck with a financial crisis herself and hides a troubled past. She is the most intriguing character in the movie and Chen cleverly unfolds her character in bits and pieces as the movie progresses.

While she learns to adapt to her new environment and learns more about the family she lives with, she unwittingly becomes a confidante to Jiale and Teck, who begins to strike a common bond with her. Hwee Leng starts to grow jealous while she struggles to make time for work and family.

Yeo Yann Yann (left) and Chen Tian Wen (right) in a scene from local film "Ilo Ilo". (YouTube Screengrab)
Yeo Yann Yann (left) and Chen Tian Wen (right) in a scene from local film "Ilo Ilo". (YouTube Screengrab)

The tale, told in overlapping vignettes, is set in 1997 when Singapore was struck by the Asian financial crisis -- unemployment and suicide rates were high.

Chen has a keen eye for detail, which makes the film all the more real — for example, he uses 90s memorabilia like the Tamagochi, the obsolete 90s Honda Accord and bulky television sets to complete the nostalgic mood.

Chen's understanding of everyday issues is impressive — in the movie, he weaved in common yet possibly difficult topics such as the social class divide, cultural differences and the lives of Filipino maids in Singapore within his story of a struggling and dysfunctional Singaporean Chinese family. However, we felt that at the end, the movie fell short of a dramatic punch and its anticipated final twist turned out to be anti-climactic.

Chen Tian Wen in a scene from local film "Ilo Ilo". (YouTube Screengrab)
Chen Tian Wen in a scene from local film "Ilo Ilo". (YouTube Screengrab)

Also, the lack of enticing visuals shows that Chen is not one to experiment with cinematography and had stuck to his signature dreamy and saturated look – which happens to work well for this nostalgic movie.

Nevertheless, it is evident in the movie that Chen is one of the best storytellers to emerge from Singapore. We are proud of you Anthony Chen.

Yahoo! Singapore gives Ilo Ilo 4 out of 5 stars.

Ilo Ilo opens in cinemas on 29 August.

Related stories:
Singaporean filmmaker wins Camera d'Or at Cannes for 'Ilo Ilo'
Cannes website misclassifies winning Singapore films as from China
Anthony Chen made changes to 'Ilo Ilo's' script because actress Yeo Yann Yann became pregnant