In 1997, Singapore was on the verge of a financial crisis. Before disaster struck, however, Teresa (Angeli Bayani), a Filipino maid, is hired by a Singaporean family to keep their wayward and emotionally neglected young son in check. It is not long before Teresa and young Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) form a bond, a bond that shows up the cracks in this seemingly perfect family.
On the surface, Ilo Ilo is an examination of a woman forced to leave her young child behind in order to earn money for his upkeep, but the film quickly reveals itself to be an insight into a family on the verge of crisis.
Many facets of society are examined in the film; Koh Jia Ler as Jiale is the perfect example of a child acting out in order to get attention. He finally gets the attention he craves from Teresa, but with the recession on the horizon, the audience is left to wonder how long this oasis of calm can last for. Teck (Chen Tianwen) is the father of the family, and the only one to feel the effects of the recession first hand; he is fired from his job and hides his failure from his controlling wife, acting out in turn by smoking illicitly in front of the house. Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) is the mother of the family, superficially controlling and nasty, it eventually becomes clear that her actions come from a place of love, even if this is difficult to see and understand at times.
Ilo Ilo is based on director Anthony Chen’s personal experiences, growing up in a neglected and neglectful family at the heart of a recession that crippled the country. Chen observes the troubles and complications for the family well, but does little to cast judgement on the choices made by the family. It is clear that the financial situation is taking a toll on each character in the film, leading to their emotional lives being stunted.
In Ilo Ilo, Anthony Chen observes a family in crisis, and coaxes some strong – if infuriating – performances from his actors. The trouble is that Ilo Ilo is not always sure of the message it is trying to send, or whether there is a story to be told here at all. The film is an engaging watch, but ultimately, a little thin.