‘Ilo Ilo’ Is Too Understated for Its Own Good

The debut feature from director Anthony Chen features strong performances, but its understated quality makes the film struggle to make a lasting impression.

Ilo Ilo is the debut feature from Singaporean writer-director Anthony Chen, and if it proves to be a surprising little movie, its surprises creep in quietly. Director Chen eschews obvious drama — shouting matches, fits of tears, car chases, etc. — in favor if more finely nuanced moments that reflect the tensions in an ordinary family. This is not to say that the film is dull, but viewers accustomed to more obvious fare might find themselves in need of a recalibration of their expectations.

The story revolves around a small family: the father (played capably by Tian Wen Chen) is in danger of losing his job as some type of corporate drone, while the pregnant mother (Yann Tann Yeo) frets at home over both her husband and their ten-year old son, Jialer. That son’s brattiness borders on the unbearable, as he sulks and slouches his way through the day both at home and school. The home, in other words, is far from an idyllic place, and the cinematography reinforces this as both interiors and exteriors are shot in a muted color palette that renders Singapore’s high-rise cityscape as a dreary, uninspiring place.

Into this situation comes Terry, a Filipina housekeeper hired by the family to help the mother as well as look after the son. Terry, played with dignified reserve by Angeli Bayani, disrupts the dynamic of the family, but in a low-key way.

Time and again, the viewer is subtly led by the screenplay and the director to expect this or that major twist — an affair between the father and Terry, say, or a sudden, Hollywood-style change of heart from Jialer. Maybe Terry will be led to a life of prostitution as she scrapes for extra money and is sent to Singapore’s red-light district? Over and over, though, these expectations are thwarted by a screenplay and director that resolutely refuse to give in to sensationalism. Chen and his cast remain committed to a naturalist style that seeks, and finds, drama in real-life situations. It’s not quite a Dogme 95 film, but it’s not too far away, either.

That’s not to say that that are no surprises here at all, no unforeseen twists or eyebrow-raising revelations. There are; they’re just not the usual, Hollywood-style twists that tend to come in even “art” films, usually involving dead bodies, large sums of money, and illicit drugs, among others.

In a film like this performances as crucial, as there are no action set pieces or special effects to distract the audience. Fortunately, the performances here are universally strong, particularly Bayani as the housekeeper Terry and Jialer Koh as the young son. Played with a complete absence of cutie-pie brattiness a la (insert Hollywood child actor here), Koh manages to infuse Jialer with a believibility that nonetheless does not restrict him to a one-note performance. As his character deepens throughout the film, he manages to maintain this credibility, which is no easy trick.

For her part, Bayani infuses the character of Terr with a patient world-weariness, leavened with a touch of innocence as her housekeeper navigates an alien culture, hoping to earn enough money to care for her own family by first taking care of someone else’s. Bayani possesses a face that manages to convey maximum expressiveness through minimal movement, and her understated performance is a big part of why the film is as engaging as it is.

Extra features on the DVD include a 23-minute “behind the scenes” featurette, a handful of trailers for other movies, and (rather inexplicably) an animated short film from Dutch director Bastiaan Schravendeel. It’s eight minutes long and cute, with terrific graphics and a clever, dialogue-free storyline, but it’s a touch bewildering as an extra on this disc. Presumably it is another property owned by the DVD distributor, Film Movement.

Ultimately, Ilo Ilo is so low-key that it never quite reaches critical mass. It’s diverting and entertaining, but its drama is so understated that fails to make a lasting impression. This might not scare away some viewers; indeed, its appeal is likely to grow out of just such a quiet approach. Worth a look for Western viewers simply because Singaporean cinema is such a rarity to come across, it’s unlikely to provoke strong responses, either pro or con.

RATING 6 / 10