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VIFF 2013: 'Ilo Ilo' Reviewed

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A recent winner of the Camera d'Or prize at Cannes, Ilo Ilo quickly sold out its first screening at the 32nd Vancouver International Film Festival. This subtle yet detailed film about family life in Singapore shows the skilled editing and directorial abilities of Anthony Chen in his feature film debut.

If you haven't been to Singapore, you'll see many typical features on display here: Mrs. Lim is the archetypal mascot of kiasu (驚輸), the Singaporean trait of keeping up appearances or a fear of losing to others. The unmistakable mass of the Singaporean apartment building is the housing form of choice here and has been since the 1960s. And you'll hear the impressive Singlish drawl -- English mixed in with the slang, grammar and words of Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and the handful of other languages that have made landfall on the island.

The focus of Chen's story is the Lim family and their struggles with both financial and emotional woes during the 1997 Asian financial crisis: Mrs. Hwee Lim (Yann Yann Yeo) juggles the demands of family with her precarious administrative job, Mr. Teck Lim (Tian Wen Chen) makes a less than impressive salesman, and their son, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), devises new schemes of disobedience at school, home and in public places.

With her perpetual look of disappointment, Mrs. Lim berates her husband while Mr. Lim is a passive patriarch and hides his gambling from his wife. These conflicts are manifested in their son, who scoffs at the rules of propriety and order. Terry (Angeli Bayani), a Filipino maid, is hired to live with the family, aiding the pregnant Mrs. Lim as well as disciplining the unruly Jiale.

Terry's arrival creates new tensions in the family and the film compels you to watch as she develops specific relationships with each family member. Terry particularly perturbs Mrs. Lim, who is miffed by all the things that her maid can do or does better than her. The dynamics between the two characters is illuminated by the original title of the film, 爸媽不在家 Ba Ma Bu Zai Jia meaning The Parents are Not Home. Also loosely based on Chen's own childhood experiences, this makes one wonder what kind of a child Chen might have been, the relationship between his own parents, and the real-life maid that was caught in the middle.

This is why Terry is such a realistically complex individual in the film - she is at times obedient, defiant, tender, and cunning. The cast is not any less interesting and the audience is kept in rapt attention as they wait for Jiale's next childish scheme, his father's desperate and secretive attempts to keep the family afloat and the mother's porcelain composure to crack.

One of the other things I loved about this film was its lack of cliché and sentimentality that kept scenes fresh and surprising; however, Anthony Chen did eventually employ some more predictable plot devices toward the end of the film, perhaps in an effort to lead the 4 story lines to some sort of conclusion (I won't give away the ending here!).

Ilo Ilo is a film that will draw you in with its details and true to life account of Singapore. You will be rewarded with a satisfying story of struggle, humour and human nature. Ilo Ilo plays again at the Vancouver International Film Festival on October 9.