Capturing nuances in 'us versus them' in Ilo Ilo, The Inlet

Capturing nuances in 'us versus them' in Ilo Ilo, The Inlet
Cinema still: Ilo Ilo

One is possibly the clearest-eyed, best-realised debut feature of a Singapore film-maker to date. The other is a page-turner by a home-grown writer who has always had the ability to nail a character's inner life in a few sentences, and now raises her storytelling game with her first crime thriller.

Apart from being a rare instance of a top-notch local film and novel being released at the same time, Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo and Claire Tham's The Inlet have at least one other thing in common.

Both see the Little Red Dot through the eyes of foreign or new immigrant characters - as an unforgiving society girded by money, a querulous, overheated island too small for failure.

Everyone knows the debate about the foreign inflow has become so polarised that any Singaporean speaking up for foreigners is either accused of being pro-PAP or selling out his own kind. Here is where art with its capacity for nuance and empathy provides a kind of time-out, fleshing out how - distinctions in pay cheques and public service entitlements aside - the differences between "us" and "them" are smaller than we think.

Chen's movie, which snagged the highest international recognition accorded to a Singapore film by winning the best debut feature award at the Cannes Film Festival in May, is set in the cramped confines of a four-room HDB flat. First-time Filipino maid Terry enters the world of a lower middle class family, just as the 1997 Asian financial crisis sends their lives into a tailspin.

Over a decade and another economic meltdown later, a young female Chinese national drowns in a private swimming pool in a wealthy resort enclave - a real-life event that forms the fictional inspiration for The Inlet, released late last month.

Unlike Ilo Ilo, Tham's novel unspools in the fast company of property developers, hedge fund managers, oil traders and police investigators. It is their world that Ling - a bright, self-possessed karaoke hostess - upends with her death.

It should be noted that neither are works of sociopolitical commentary in any obvious sense, but have their own integrity as stories. None of the characters in Ilo Ilo is a talker or thinker - the mother (played by Yeo Yann Yann) is a stoic, no-nonsense doer, the father (Chen Tianwen) is paralysed by feelings of helplessness, while the son (Koh Jia Ler) has so much energy bouncing off the walls, he turns to his fists.

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