It is a film that has been making rounds throughout Singapore and around the world after taking away the Caméra d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. We see its posters plastered on walls, its trailers airing on our television sets, and now we see it flying from one end of the world to another. Among these destinations could possibly be Hollywood, as the Ilo Ilo was recently chosen as Singapore’s official entry for the upcoming Oscars race in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Anthony Chen’s drama Ilo Ilo is grounded, intimate, and sincere. It presents the friendship between a Singaporean child and his Filipino housemaid. While moulding this friendship, Chen furthers the story by intricately presenting the shifting social and economic landscape that circles both main protagonists and their families. What results are fragile, three dimensional characters, all the more endearing us to them and their plight.
A year ago, Anthony Chen visited The Puttnam School of Film to screen his film Ah Ma. A few weeks ago in August, he returned to grace the halls of PSOF once again to share Ilo Ilo, fresh from its win at Cannes.
Having undergone his training as a film student in Singapore and the UK, Chen had much to share with PSOF students. Intrigued by the inspiration for Ilo Ilo’s story, we had much to ask about his experiences with the real Aunty Terry, who had taken care of him in his younger days. Chen admitted that many of the scenes paralleled instances that he distinctly remembered from his past. For example, he recalled vividly (and with much nostalgia) how his Auntie Terry slaughtered and cooked a live chicken in the bathroom, much like Jia Ler’s experience in the film. On a more somber note, Chen recalled how like Jia Ler’s father, his faced difficulty in employment during the economic crisis. Chen’s relation to the characters and the circumstances that surrounded them may explain how the story was told from such an intimate and sensitive perspective.
The discussion turned to numbers when Chen revealed that, to our surprise, nearly 8000 children were auditioned for the role of Jia Ler. He said of his casting phase that “What helps me best is gut feeling. Eighty percent of my filmmaking is reliant on performance. When taking this into account, when a wrong casting decision is made, the audience will definitely see it.” He continually expressed that he “wanted a sense of naturalism; a sense of life.”
Seeds of wisdom were also shared as Chen related to students through his experiences as a film student, and how film education has helped him even now. “I work a lot with past classmates,” he reveals. “I love working with people who understand me…who are loyal. This allows me to be loyal myself, and encourages me to maintain relationships.” Continuing, he said “when it comes to crunch time, the people you grow with are the ones that reach out when you need them the most.” Emphasising on building and keeping relationships through film school, camaraderie in the film industry started to become an underlying theme during Chen’s discussion.
He ended powerfully with his wish for local cinema: “My wish for Singaporean Cinema…is diversity.” We need to further recognise the religions, cultures, peoples, and backgrounds in Singapore, and we need to show it to the world.” A silent yet powerful agreement in the form of nods could be felt in the room. “We want this to be a game changer for Singaporean Cinema,” added his producer, Wahyuni Hadi. Yuni, as she is affectionately known is a fierce advocate of local independent cinema.
At this point, only time will tell how much further Ilo Ilo will go, and how Anthony Chen will continue to mould himself as a filmmaker. However one thing is for sure, and it is that Ilo Ilo has already captured the hearts of the many that have seen it, and its strong domestic presence may have already stirred the inception of a new trend in Singapore Cinema.
Aron Castro is a first year student at The Puttnam School of Film. Though growing up on the mainstream films during his childhood, he still enjoys dabbling in independent and foreign cinema. Intimate and compelling stories grounded in everyday realities, inspire him.