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.

 

In a slow-burn narrative, the film's only moment of editorialising is when a neighbour's maid tells Terry she should toss out her rosary now that she is in an unsentimental new country because "there's no room for God here".

As for The Inlet, politics is batted around as a conversation topic and source of humour or satire, but where the novel really draws blood is in the vivid emotional lives of its characters.

Among its sprawling yet mostly well-sketched cast is an India-born teenager whose "clearest childhood memory was of arriving at Changi airport at the age of eight, crying because she'd left her teddy on the plane; how the Malay immigration officer had placated her with a sweet and called her 'dulling' (darling)".

Her country of birth now feels "overwhelming and overwhelmingly foreign" and she "would probably remember every single word of (the Pledge) until the day she died", from reciting it every morning at her top local girls school.

Yet she knows disgruntled, dyed-in-the-wool Singaporeans probably consider these "trite, token symbols of belonging".

Tham excels in her incisive portraits of the moneyed elite, from patrician Singaporean families to foreign newcomers. Other "foreigners" include the Hong Kong-born Singapore police investigator in charge of Ling's case - his antipathy to the rich running as deep as the average Singaporean's - to Ling herself, who uncorks on this equatorial island a depth of feeling she did not know she had.

Both novel and film mine the grey areas in what constitutes a foreigner and the connections they forge with "Singaporeans", transcending archetypes.

 

A year ago, I employed a Filipina to help care for my two young children. I have to say I saw a lot of our interactions reflected in Ilo Ilo - the mix of apprehension and curiosity as Terry (Angeli Bayani) first sizes up her new home-cum-workplace, the resentment and suspicion of the child first put under a stranger's charge, followed by the inevitable bond between child and maid that threatens to supplant that of mother and child.

Throughout it all, the characters realise - just as we did - that a maid who genuinely cares for your children becomes one of the family, for better or worse. Terry is no saint - she calculates every cent as much as her Singaporean employers do - but she has a heart. French director of photography Benoit Soler's camera registers every flicker on their faces without judgment.

At a time when much of the blame for society's ills has been attributed to a revolving door of foreigners, both Chen and Tham portray the larger forces - globalisation, poverty, ambition, hope - that have led them to wash up on our shores.

They tell the stories that have eluded the short attention spans of newsprint and the Internet, and point to a common humanity that links us all.

clare@sph.com.sg

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.