Despite a seemingly cursed premier at Cannes, which included a thunderstorm and a blackout, Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo has gone on to great acclaim and dozens of festival awards. Ahead of its UK release, Chen gives us his theories on his debut’s success
Singapore cinema has very rarely travelled outside the confines of its borders to such acclaim as Anthony Chen’s multi-award winning debut film Ilo Ilo (the exceptions being the films by Cannes-favourite Eric Khoo), which, since premiering at Cannes last May in the Director’s Fortnight strand, has won over 30 international awards including Cannes’ prestigious Caméra d’Or (for best first film) and the London Film Festival’s Sutherland Trophy.
At first glance Ilo Ilo is a slight cocktail of innocence, misplaced parents and emotional connections that are never forgotten. Koh Jia Ler plays Jiale, a headstrong young boy who has to deal with a typical middle-class enclave interrupted by the world financial crisis and his parents bringing a Filipina live-in maid into their home. Angeli Bayani is wonderfully stoical as the put-upon nanny, Teresa, who manages to be both the supportive and stern mother figure that Jiale so obviously cries out for.
A slight internalised focus means that the film is an insidious gem that at first glance appears to slip away to nothing at any given time but somehow weeks and months later it stays lodged in your cinematic consciousness, awaiting anything to lighten it back in your mind.
The Skinny: It is of course rare that a debut film explodes, like Ilo Ilo has, on the festival circuit or otherwise, so the question is always how or why…
Anthony Chen: My nanny came when I was four and she left when I was 12. Ilo Ilo came from one piece of emotion: when I was 12 standing at the airport sending her off and I remember I was crying and crying, it was quite painful. Now looking back at this memory that has been repressed for so many years I wondered how would a kid develop these feelings for a foreigner, a stranger who is not part of your family?
The film is autobiographical, then, but how much so?
It started off as a retelling of events and that wasn’t very interesting and slowly as I discovered my characters, I went on a journey and found what I was trying to say and create. It was a very organic process but I had to stand back and be more objective. I wish I was a more formulaic writer. I wish I was a more brilliant writer but I’m not. I have to slowly find things.
Ilo Ilo won the Caméra d’Or in Cannes last year [Chen is the first Singapore filmmaker to do so] but the premiere sounds like you were cursed: you had blackouts, thunderstorms and the film stopped three times…
I felt it was such a disaster to begin with and became so beautiful. There was a storm and all of a sudden 40 minutes into the film there was a powercut and there was a complete blackout (which happened a further two times). I wanted to run out and bury myself, I was so worried people were going to walk but I was so surprised that they stayed right to the end. When the film received a rapturous standing ovation that was quite magical and electrifying. I thought at first that people were being polite because we had such a terrible premiere and they were trying to console us, but when I turned around and saw the tears in people’s eyes, and how moved they were, I realised that there is something special about this film.
Have you been surprised by the international reception to the film?
I’m surprised that the film has won over 30 awards from around the world. For me the film has always been such a humble piece of filmmaking, it is not subversive, stylish, muscular or a groundbreaking piece of cinema.
Your nanny came to a screening in Singapore, is that correct?
It was because of the Caméra d’Or that spurred a lot of intense interest from the Filipino media, and they were the ones who hunted her down via TV news. We couldn’t have done it because all we had was her first name: Teresa. We knew her as Auntie Terry.
What did she think of the film?
I remember she told me the next day that “you make me laugh, you make me cry.” She is a woman of few words but when she says anything it feels that there is always something wise in it.