In Singapore, a struggling family of three with another way hire a new maid from the Philippines (Angeli Bayani), all the while battling money issues and the troublesome behaviour of their young son.

Maid aids ailing family in convincing Camera d'Or winner.

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: With 26 contenders to choose from across all sections of the 66th Cannes Film Festival, a jury headed by Agnes Varda chose Singaporean writer-director Anthony Chen's Ilo ilo for the Camera d'Or, which honors an outstanding first film. "This is the first time Singapore has ever won anything at Cannes," said the director.

Chen tells his modest yet affecting tale with a sure touch

(Oddly enough, the description of Chen in the official catalogue for the Directors Fortnight sidebar, which programmed the film, states that his 2007 short film Ah Ma (Grandma) was in the Short Film competition at Cannes where it received a Special Mention, "the first time a Singapore film was awarded in Cannes.")

Let's roll with the hyperbole while we can and say that Ilo ilo is certainly the best feature from Singapore ever to win a prize at Cannes.

Chen tells his modest yet affecting tale with a sure touch. Ten-year-old Jiale is a troublemaker in a society that values discipline. He doesn't mean to get into trouble but ends up in hot water anyway. His mother, Hwee Leng, works in a busy shipping office and is very pregnant with what will be her second child. His father, Teck, is a salesman who in the course of the few months the film covers will lose more than one job. Teck apparently made some bad investments and dreads having to reveal the gaping hole in their finances to his wife. The film takes place in 1997. It puts a small collection of human faces on the catch-all term 'Asian financial crisis’.

The couple and their son live in a utilitarian modernish apartment. Their car, whose audiocassette player is a charming reminder of a slightly earlier era, doesn't always start when it should. Despite their unremarkable standard of living, they can afford to hire a maid-cum-nanny to give overworked Hwee Leng some relief. "Don't pick one from Malaysia," she tells her husband, who has contacted a nanny agency. "We don't speak Malay."

The helper they hire is a petite woman from the Philippines named Teresa, who prefers to be called Terry. The language they have in common is English. Terry is as polite as she is subservient. Her employers come across as gruff because their instructions and requests are never buffered by a "Would you please?" or a "Could you?"

Jiale's mom asks – well, orders – Terry to hand over her passport as a precaution. It seems as if Jiale's toys rate better accommodation than Terry does: Terry sleeps on a small mattress that slides out from under Jiale's' bed. At first, Jiale sulks, but as time goes on Terry and her charge form a tentative relationship that deepens at its own, utterly believable pace.

We know that Jiale collects newspapers and that he gets in trouble at school for gluing newspaper clippings into a notebook during class instead of paying attention to the lesson underway. It turns out that Jiale is studying winning lottery numbers, looking for patterns. This peculiar hobby will come in handy.

The film explores spoken and unspoken tensions, all of them absolutely convincing. We see the protagonists soldier on under duress. Secret cigarette smoking and secret work on the side are deftly folded into the narrative.

We see that school pupils are still caned for transgressions and that nobody circa 1997 finds the practice outdated or barbaric. 'Spare the rod and spoil the child’ may sound archaic in many other parts of the world, but not in this school district. Imagine this writer's surprise when stumbling upon a very recent article confirming that corporal punishment is still legal and still applied in 19 U.S. states!

Nobody in Jiale's extended family is happy for long but neither are they miserable. The film achieves a quietly impressive balance as human behaviour swings from serious to funny and back again.

When a neighbour jumps from the roof of an adjacent building, the thud of his body landing on the pavement is as violent as a zombie attack or a major monument blowing up. It's a small moment in the course of the film and we don't know whether the jumper suffered from financial ruin or heartbreak or a terminal illness or something else entirely. It plants the idea that you can try to roll with the punches or you can make the choice to give up.

Most of us don't witness suicide jumps (or battle vampires or terrorists for that matter) in the course of our day, but we do encounter men who can't be bothered aiming accurately into the toilet bowl when urinating or people in positions of authority who unfairly assess a situation and who's to blame for it. Someday Anthony Chen may make the first film from Singapore to win a prize at Cannes about suicidal terrorists who turn into vampires, but for now his well-depicted concerns are more routine.

After a promotional flyer she found on the sidewalk catches her eye, Jiale's mom goes to hear a motivational speaker hold forth on the topic of 'Opportunity in Crisis’. This small, well-observed tangent may be set in Singapore over 15 years ago but will be recognisable to viewers almost anywhere.

After his father happens to see a nature documentary on TV about baby chicks hatching, Jiale is given three chicks as a gift. The family eats a lot of takeaway chicken, even though the living 'relatives’ of their meal are right there on the balcony (or, in one memorable shot, pecking at piano keys).

In praising the film on awards night in Cannes, Varda said "This film didn't have any music – and after being assaulted by overblown musical scores in so many pictures, that alone was a welcome sign of finesse and sensitivity."


Watch 'Ilo Ilo'

Wednesday 20 January, 7:35pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Thursday 21 January, 3:50am on SBS World Movies
Friday 22 January, 1:15am on SBS World Movies

Singapore, 2013
Genre: Drama
Language: Mandarin
Director: Anthony Chen
Starring: Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Tian Wen Chen, Yann Yann Yeo

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