Ilo Ilo marks contemporary Singapore film's finest hour to date, a surprisingly assured debut feature that has scooped up an unprecedented number of international awards - 14, if you have lost count. It will likely add to its haul at Taiwan's equivalent of the Oscars later this month, the prestigious Golden Horse Awards, where it has six nominations.
Clearly its success is the outcome of certain building blocks of the country's film ecosystem, notably quality film schools and a critical mass of talent that is raising the bar for celluloid production.
Director Anthony Chen is an alumnus of Ngee Ann Polytechnic's film, sound and video diploma course, as is another outstanding young film-maker Boo Junfeng. A third director with his own distinctive style, Royston Tan, graduated from Temasek Polytechnic's visual communications course in the late 1990s; the school has since started a more specialised film diploma.
But Ilo Ilo's modest showing here - it did not quite break even from its two-month run in local cinemas - and the sheer amount of thought and craft put into the movie raise questions about whether Singapore should do more to promote film-making not just as an industry, but also as an art.
Chen's movie, about a Singapore family whose lives are upended by both the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the arrival of their live-in Filipino maid, is anything but commercial. This is evident not just from the final product, with its long takes and slow-burn exploration of family dynamics, but also its painstaking gestation process.
It reportedly took Chen three years to make, and he was meticulous about it. Among other things, he auditioned 8,000 kids before he found first-time actor Koh Jia Ler to play the young son. His first choice for the role of the father was reportedly the character actor-turned- monk Xie Shaoguang. Chen travelled to his monastery in Johor Baru, waited three hours to see him and eventually left without a meeting. He later cast veteran television actor Chen Tianwen instead.
When I caught the film at a weekday lunchtime screening at the Bugis Plus Filmgarde Cineplex in September, I must have been one of only five people in the hall. The $700,000 film, which ran here from Aug 29 to the end of last month, made over $800,000 at the Singapore box office, but needs to make at least $2 million to recoup marketing and other costs.