You Shouldn’t Watch Ilo Ilo If…


First off: I enjoyed Ilo Ilo immensely. I was blown away by how the cast carried the story so incredibly well. Plus, the production values and attention to detail were top-notch.

While booking the movie tickets online I came across an amazingly negative user review that gave me some pause. All the mainstream reviews have said that every person living in Singapore will love this film, but after watching it I think I’ve come to understand why some would pan it. So in lieu of a straight-up movie review, here’s my take on who should not watch Ilo Ilo.

1. Do not watch this film if you like movies to have good guys and bad guys.

Who's the hero and who's the villian? Hint: this is a trick question.

Who’s the hero and who’s the villain? Hint: this is a trick question.

Instead of black and white, this movie gives you every shade in between, accompanied by a wealth of questions about human nature.

Is Hwee Leng the antagonist because she’s passive-aggressive and doesn’t show affection to her husband and son, or is she martyred and misunderstood? Is Terry (the maid) the oppressed heroine of the piece even when she raises a hand towards her employer’s child, and when she sneaks away to earn side income? Is Jia Le a “bad kid” because he disobeys his parents and teachers, or is he a product of his circumstances? Is it ever acceptable for the head of the household to lie continually to his family, by omission or otherwise?

Which leads me to my second point…

2. Do not watch this film if you prefer an action-packed plot over slowly-simmering character development.

This could be dinner in any HDB household. Which is kind of the point, IMHO.

This could be dinner in any HDB household. Which is kind of the point, IMHO.

Spoiler alert! The plot summary for Ilo Ilo is simply this: “A Singaporean family hires a Filipina domestic helper during a rough period in their lives. She forms a bond with their child. Then, the Asian financial crisis hits them hard, and they have to send her home.”

The time period represented in the movie can’t be more than 3 or 4 months. And in the lives of regular people, a quarter of a year can mean many significant life events. You might leave one job and start a new one – that’s a big deal. Your kid or sibling could get into trouble at school – also pretty important. Obviously, none of this is blockbuster material. But when a movie spins these individual stories into a big and meaningful narrative about the nature of relationships, and it does it well… you don’t need massive dramatic plot developments to stay riveted. Unless that’s your only cup of tea. And if so – wrong movie.

3. Do not watch this film if you like neatly resolved endings.

How well do you deal with uncertainty and ambiguity?

How well do you deal with uncertainty and ambiguity?

I left the cinema feeling unsettled. I left with a lot of questions. I did leave thinking it might be nice to know how everyone turned out – but I was still glad that the movie ended the way it did.

The ending made me think very hard about some things. It made me consider if I was just lucky that my own latchkey childhood didn’t give rise to any major behavioural problems. It gave me some pause about the things I’d taken for granted, like how I barely experienced the 1997 financial crisis because of the stability of my parents’ jobs (which obviously I couldn’t have appreciated at the time, being only 13). These reflections gave me my own sense of resolution, and it was a lot more satisfying for me than if the filmmakers had added a hackneyed “10 years later” jump to show viewers how things turned out for the Lim family.

So… why should you watch this film?

You mean, besides inverting all the reasons I stated above?
Fundamentally, Ilo Ilo is a story with a lot of heart. If you set out to watch it for that reason alone, I can say with some confidence that you’ll get your money’s worth and then some.

(All images ganked from Ilo Ilo’s Facebook page.)

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