ST readers connect with Ilo Ilo

SINGAPORE - Director Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo might have won critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival in May, but he still found it a "nerve-racking" experience showing the film to Singapore audiences.

"I wasn't sure what expectations people might have, as the film is probably different from most of the locally produced films you usually see," the 29-year-old told Life! after the first public screening of his debut feature-length film on Wednesday night for The Straits Times readers at Golden Village VivoCity.

The 200 tickets were given out in a lucky draw as part of The Straits Times Appreciates Readers programme.

Ilo Ilo, which is based on his personal experiences, examines the relationships within a Singaporean family and their Filipino maid, Teresa. It is named after the province in the Philippines that Chen's maid, who left when he was 12, was from.

Set against the backdrop of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the film focuses on the strained ties in the family.

Chen's worries about the reception were unfounded though, judging by the viewers' enthusiastic response to the film and at the 30-minute question-and-answer session after the screening. Temasek Polytechnic student Idris Talib, 20, said: "It is quite an honest film with an innate sadness, even though there are many funny parts. I found myself empathising with the characters and feeling like there isn't a clear-cut answer to everything."

Questions at the Q&A session revolved mostly around the film-making process, such as casting and the challenges faced.

Chen said: "You can usually sense from the post-show atmosphere whether people have connected with the film and I think they did. It felt quite warm and positive."

It was important to him that his fellow Singaporeans liked the film. "It's a local film very much rooted in Singapore culture so I really do care about how they feel. Even though I spend a lot time outside of Singapore, I'm still a Singapore boy at heart."

Chen has been based in London since 2008 with his wife, a graduate student from Xiamen, China, who is pursuing a PhD in statistics and econometrics at the London School of Economics. They have no children.

He said he wanted an accurate and honest picture of the Singapore that he grew up in during the 1990s, so he spent days scouting for perfect locations, such as the office that actress Yeo Yann Yann's character worked in. "I drove around for three days with my interns and went knocking on the door of every single factory in Tuas," he said at the post-show dialogue.

"I found this place that had the right atmosphere but all the computers were new, so we had to get old 1990s CPU units from the rag-and-bone man in order to complete the look," he added. He was also worried that elements of Filipino culture depicted in the film might come across as patronising or misinformed to Filipinos, even though he had done prior research and interviewed maids here.

"Angeli Bayani, who plays the role of the maid, is from Manila and could not speak the Ilongo dialect that is widely used in Ilo Ilo, where my maid Auntie Terry (Teresita D. Sajunia) is from.

"We got someone who can speak Ilongo to train her and in the film, you see her switching between Tagalog when she speaks to other Filipinos at Lucky Plaza and Ilongo when she calls home."

He was heartened when Filipino members in the audience on Wednesday night assured him that Bayani's portrayal was an authentic one.

"People were saying that it doesn't matter which Filipino dialects I used, since Singaporean and Western audiences can't understand them anyway but it's something so close to my heart that I didn't want to be dishonest," he said.

While the film was based on his experiences, he did dramatise the story and characters quite a bit. "I wasn't as naughty as the boy (played by 12-year-old actor Koh Jia Ler), but my dad was a sales manager and he did lose his job during the Asian financial crisis," he said.

Chen also said he had to re-write the script in order to keep Yeo in the movie after she told him she was pregnant right before filming started.

Yeo, 36, who plays the mother, made a special appearance after the screening. She said her daughter is turning one tomorrow, just in time for the film's gala premiere at the MasterCard Theatre at Marina Bay Sands at 7pm. President Tony Tan Keng Yam will be the guest of honour.

Chen will be here till Sunday before going to France for a 10-day promotion tour for Ilo Ilo, which opens there on Sept 4. The film will be screened in more than 10 other countries, including Australia, Britain and the United States. A Filipino release is expected to be announced soon.

Ilo Ilo will be officially released in cinemas here next Thursday. Sneak previews are available this weekend.

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