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Ilo Ilo | 4.5/5

SINGAPORE — It’s rather hard coming into this film without thinking of all the external bits. The impressive Cannes Film Fest coup, the major thumbs up from the Prime Minister himself, film-maker Anthony Chen’s real life reunion with the domestic helper who inspired the film.

SINGAPORE — It’s rather hard coming into this film without thinking of all the external bits. The impressive Cannes Film Fest coup, the major thumbs up from the Prime Minister himself, film-maker Anthony Chen’s real life reunion with the domestic helper who inspired the film.

But once you’ve settled in, you realise these are all extraneous to the fact that this is one well-crafted and solid domestic drama with finely nuanced acting that quietly charms its way into your hearts — and stays there.

The Lims (Yeo Yann Yann and Chen Tian Wen) hire a nanny from the Philippines, more specifically, from the province of Iloilo (from which the English title is derived, although the movie itself doesn’t explain it). Terry (Angeli Bayani) has her work cut out for her as only child Jia Le (Koh Jia Ler) proves to be the ultimate brat from hell. The wonderful dynamic between nanny and child shine through as their relationship evolves — young actor Koh’s character is truly irritating as he constantly taunts his Auntie Terry with his pranks and misdemeanours, but it’s balanced by an aura of innocence and loneliness.

Bayani, meanwhile, lends her own role as a fish-out-of-water first-time domestic helper with a sense of feistiness. (“I’m your maid but I didn’t come here to be bullied,” she snaps at Jia Le at some point.)

But husband and wife, too, are not to be outdone — their respective stories proving to be just as engaging, as they negotiate the changes at home and, as the Asian financial crisis of the late `90s looms over Singapore, at work.

Yeo and Chen effectively disappear into their characters. You empathise with the pregnant Mrs Lim (Yeo really was with child during the filming) as she struggles to deal with the Terry’s presence slowly usurping her mother role, while the kind-but-down-on-his-luck Mr Lim has his own emasculation issues as provider of the household.

It’s to Chen’s credit that he succeeds in fully fleshing out all four of the protagonists, each one resonating with their respective quirks that makes them just that more memorable — the father who sneaks a puff in secret, the mother with a penchant for orderliness, a 10-year-old kid who keeps a book of newspaper cuttings for Toto, and a helper who’s more than just a sob story.

But Ilo Ilo is more than a heartfelt portrait of a family (which, yes, includes the household help). It’s a deft, accurate portrait of a milieu as well — the Asian crisis is rarely mentioned, but there is a strong feeling of uncertainty throughout, without actually going overboard. Chen does like his symbols and metaphors a lot, but it’s the subtle atmosphere he builds up — the constant stream of layoffs, the punctuation of a suicide, the tiny elements here and there — that truly convinces and makes it all genuine.

All that hype? It’s well-deserved and much, much more. Go catch it.

(PG13, 100mins)

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