Because of the scarcity of films this year in Cannes that dare to stretch the boundaries, break with conventions, or experiment in any meaningful way with form, the best alternative is to seek out work that does something interesting with storytelling. Among the debut work competing for the Camera d’Or—the prize for best first film, and one of Cannes’ most meaningful awards since it spans all the sections from the main competition to Critics Week—three fine examples stand out in the festival’s first half: Anthony Chen’s insightful family drama, Ilo Ilo, in Directors’ Fortnight; Flora Lau’s impressively disciplined Bends, also in Fortnight; and, in Critics’ Week, Ritesh Batra’s charming The Lunchbox, starring Irrfan Khan in one of his richest performances.
The three films are notably linked in a few respects. All hail from culturally distinctive Asian locales experiencing intensive social and/or political changes; all explore in one way or another characters at home and at work enduring economic stresses that are also felt in the society at large; all exhibit an acute sense of class contrasts and separation; and from a storytelling perspective, all manage to harvest comedy—or at least comic moments—from situations that could spell dark outcomes for their characters.
In the cases of Ilo Ilo and Bends, there’s the added frisson of transnational and cross-border complications. Chen’s tale hinges on Filipina maid Teresa (Angeli Bayani) who works in a dysfunctional home in Singapore during the 1997 economic crisis that deeply affected all of East Asia. Lau places her two central characters—Anna (veteran Hong Kong star Carina Lau), wife of a wealthy Hong Kong industrialist, and her driver Fai (Chen Kun)—in two polar-opposite cities that are nonetheless linked. Anna lives like royalty in the tony HK hills while Fai shares a cramped apartment with his son and pregnant wife in Shenzhen, the large Mainland city just over the border from HK. In these cases, character identity is a matter of location, location, location.
Economics drives the fates of the people in the three films in a way that reinforces the notion that larger forces can and do determine our futures. In Ilo Ilo, as Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) works long hours, Teck (Chen Tian Wen) tries to conceal his shame over being laid off from his longtime office job and then losing the family’s much-needed nest egg in ill-considered stock trades. Teresa becomes more of a mother to their flagrantly unruly young son, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler, in an amazing performance). In The Lunchbox, Khan plays an insurance claims clerk on the verge of retiring who feels the pressure to train his younger (and no doubt cheaper) replacement staffer. As bad as Fai has it with his wife wanting to deliver their child in Hong Kong rather than in Shenzhen (where they would have to pay China’s onerous fee for a second child), complicated by the fact that Hong Kong’s maternity wards are full, the wealthy Anna may have it worse as she's suddenly plunged into crisis when her husband goes missing and closes down their credit card accounts. Like Teck, she is desperately driven to find ways of saving face and keeping up appearances.
Lau never explains the husband’s absence, but it’s easy to infer that bad business deals are the cause; in a more sinister way, the fact that he places business over his wife and emotional life by leaving her stranded is one of the movie’s subtlest yet most telling commentaries. This subtle streak runs through the three storylines to a remarkable degree: these movies could have opted for heavy-handed plots burdened with obvious messages, but instead are guided by the smarter notion of giving character behavior the room to unfold organically so that, in turn, the viewer has space to arrive at conclusions.
Small items, often treasured by the characters, contain great meaning in all three films. Khan’s lunchbox, a set of tins which are packed in a kitchen and then delivered in an elaborate process across the vast stretches of Mumbai by bike and train, becomes the repository of a sea of emotions for him and the woman who has prepared a lunchbox for her husband that accidentally gets delivered to Khan’s office desk. Jiale’s noisy gaming device becomes too much for Teck, and as he suddenly grabs it out of his boy’s hands and tosses it out his driver’s side car window, it’s both one of Ilo Ilo’s funniest moments and a perfect example of character revelation through action—the very beating heart and soul of cinematic storytelling.