Maid in S'pore film a winner

ILO ILO (PG13)

Drama/100 minutes

Rating: 4/5

The film's title refers to a province in the Philippines, but its story is quintessentially Singaporean.

Set in 1997, Filipino maid Teresa (Pinoy actress Angeli Bayani) arrives in Singapore to work for the Lims, and lives with the family in their modest Housing Board flat.

Teresa, or Terry for short, shares a room with the Lims' young son, Jiale (child actor Koh Jia Ler). She builds a bond with the mischievous boy, who calls her Auntie Terry.

With some 209,600 foreign maids working here, the story is familiar.

It's no surprise to learn that the tale was inspired by Singaporean director Anthony Chen's own childhood and his bond with his Filipino helper.

In one interview, the 29-year-old Chen said: "I thought of Auntie Terry a lot - it surprised me how a person from the past who has been absent from one's life for so long can suddenly pop back into one's head."

Despite the distinctively local flavour - or perhaps because of it - the movie struck a chord with the judges at this year's Cannes Film Festival and it was awarded the Camera d'Or prize for Best Debut Feature in May.

Chen's skill is evident in the way that he draws the viewer in, with a series of subtle yet poignant scenes.

Amid the looming recession of the 1990s, family tensions are high. The head of the Lim household, Teck (seasoned actor Chen Tianwen), faces retrenchment. The mother, Hwee Leng (actress Yeo Yann Yann), struggles with juggling her job, family and pregnancy.

One can feel Hwee Leng's helplessness, fear and jealousy as the bond between Terry and her son grows stronger. You empathise, as she feels she is being replaced.

On Jiale's birthday, the boy eagerly snaps a photo with Terry, a stark contrast to his lack of enthusiasm when it comes to his mother's turn.

The stars of the show are undoubtedly Bayani and Koh. The dynamics between them are captivating to watch.

The pair grow close to each other, and it's moving to see the everyday things play out - Jiale dishing out fashion advice to Terry, and the maid buying her young charge Filipino snacks on her day off.

Displacement and what fills gaps in the heart are running themes.

In one memorable exchange, Jiale asks Terry innocently how she can leave her own young child in the care of others in the Philippines, while she works here.

The maid comes up with an arresting retort that has the boy reflecting on his own family situation.

There are no dramatic twists here, no huge events. But this quiet film is an evocative one, crafted artfully, and proof that simplicity can speak volumes.

nggwen@sph.com.sg


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