'Little film' roars again

The most heartening thing about the four Golden Horse Awards wins chalked up by Ilo Ilo last Saturday night - including the top award of Best Feature Film - is that the film could not be more Singaporean.

Its maker was born and raised here, and its story of a family in a small HDB flat coping with a new foreign domestic helper is as local as the Housing Board.

And it was made with a Singapore-sized (read: small) budget.

Coming after Ilo Ilo won the Camera d'Or for Best First Film at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, it has put both writer-director Anthony Chen and his drama in Singapore history books as the country's most internationally lauded auteur and film, two products of Singapore pitted against the best in the world, and winning.

Chen likes to call Ilo Ilo, a drama about a Singapore family struggling to adapt to their new domestic helper in the midst of the 1998 economic slump, his "little film".

This "little film", shot around Jurong and other housing estates on a budget of $500,000, is not just an award winner. It is also doing tidy business at box offices overseas, especially in film-mad France.

The film's modest financial gains, when seen against its plaudits for artistic achievement, point to several interesting new trends in Singapore cinema.

First, while the film might be partly funded by the Singapore Film Commission and Ngee Ann Polytechnic and feature the vision of a Singaporean film-maker, it is, under the surface, an international work.

It features two foreign-born leads - a Malaysian-born actress (Yeo Yann Yann, winner of Best Supporting Actress award at the Golden Horse) and Filipino actress Angela Bayani.

The director of photography, Benoit Soler, is a Frenchman.

The film's languages switch from English to Mandarin to Cantonese to Tagalog, and its main theme - about how an average family adapts to life with a foreign domestic helper - is one that people in Taiwan (where many households employ Filipino helpers) and France can identify with.

More telling is what it does not have. It relies very little on factors that local films employ for marketability in Singapore.

It does not feature cute young actors. There is no romantic angle, slapstick humour, horror elements or computer- added special effects. It lacks stock characters that rely on familiarity with local television or local institutions.

These traits that sell a movie in this country and, increasingly, Malaysia, have the reverse effect on overseas box-office takings.

Ilo Ilo made just under a million at the Singapore box office, a far cry from the over $6 million that each of the two Ah Boys To Men army comedy films made this year and last year.

But these works, and the other horror and romantic comedy films that form the bulk of local output, do not travel well.

What's also troubling is that Ilo Ilo is not some esoteric arthouse production. It was aimed squarely at the middle.

As Chen himself said as he took the trophy for Best Original Screenplay on Saturday night: "The commercial movie people told me it wouldn't sell. The arthouse people said that no film festival will want it."

So while we might all celebrate the Singapore movie that has gone further than any before it, the film is also a signal.

It shows that the gap between what Singaporeans want to see, and what wins audiences and awards overseas, remains stubbornly wide.


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