Kaiju Shakedown: Ilo Ilo
This week, 30-year-old Anthony Chen’s quiet domestic drama, Ilo Ilo, arrives on DVD in the U.S. from boutique label, Film Movement. It’s a sign of how much the foreign film landscape has changed since Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (00), which mined similar territory, got a 15 screen theatrical release in the U.S., earning over $1 million; 15 years later, Ilo Ilo hit 17 screens and barely made it past the $50,000 mark, pulling in around $3,600 per screen. Quality no longer has a role in a film’s distribution chances, because there simply is no more theatrical market for subtitled films in America. But the fact that this flick barely registered theatrically and will reach a far bigger audience on DVD shouldn’t keep you away. Ilo Ilo is the first Singaporean feature film to win a prize at Cannes (the Camera d’Or), and it quickly picked up 25 other awards at film festivals around the world, including two prestigious Taipei Golden Horse awards for “Best New Director” and “Best Screenplay.”
The Lim family are middle class Singaporeans with dad, Teck (Chen Tian-wen), trying to hold onto his job during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, while heavily pregnant mom, Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann-yann), holds down a second job of her own. Lost in the salary-shuffle is their son, Jiale (Koh Jia-ler), a bratty little emperor with an overbite who acts out on an epic level. Hwee Leng and Teck hire a Filipino maid, Terry (Angeli Bayani), for help and the movie watches from a slight remove as the family falls apart, and Terry tries to reach the helplessly drifting Jiale and bring him back to shore.
Based on Anthony Chen’s own childhood (he spent weeks searching for a location that exactly matched the layout of his family’s old apartment), Ilo Ilo is shot with zero flashy camera work and no musical score. But Chen’s film is more than an artsy map of the tiny cruelties that families inflict on one another, the little diplomacies, the petty slights, and the microscopic revenges. Underneath its deceptively simple surface, it’s packed to the point of exploding with racial and class tension.
But Chen’s refusal to turn these issues into melodrama has resulted in reviews that miss the point. The Hollywood Reporter writes, “…faint praise is probably the most honest response to a low-key exercise in domestic navel-gazing that blurs the line between subtle understatement and tasteful tedium.” Variety gets closer, but still wins no cigar, when it writes, “The film’s Chinese title, which translates as ‘Mom and Dad Are Not Home,’ describes the predicament of so many Asian children who are placed in the care of foreign nannies while their parents work to maintain a double-income lifestyle.”
Let me fix that for Variety: “The film describes the predicament of so many Chinese children who are placed in the care of Filipino and Indonesian nannies.” Out of the 53 million domestic workers in the world, the majority of them (41 percent) work in Asia. Hong Kong alone has 319,325 (4.4 percent of the total population), while Singapore has 211,000. Most of these workers get one day off per week (a concession not required in Singapore until 2013), and Amensty International reports that at least a third of them work around 17 hours per day. Since 1998, Hong Kong’s average median monthly income has risen 15 percent. For domestic workers (often called amahs) it has risen 3.9 percent. In real numbers that means amahs like Terry earn USD $510 a month in Hong Kong, $316 a month in Singapore, and, in Malaysia, only $121 a month.
But the ugliest thing about this situation is that domestic workers are usually from a country considered ethnically inferior by their employers. 48 percent of domestic workers in Hong Kong are Filipino, and 49 percent are from Indonesia. They’re often darker skinned than the Chinese families they work for, they’re often made to wear uniforms, and many of them have to share rooms with the children, or live in the laundry room. Abuse is a common problem. Jacky Cheung, Hong Kong’s famous actor and singer who has appeared in everything from Wong Kar Wai’s As Tears Go By (88) to blockbuster Bodyguards and Assassins (09), was blacklisted by the government of the Philippines, for tearing through 21 domestic workers in three years. Cheung’s solution? Hire Indonesian maids instead.
Generations of kids in Asia’s biggest cities grow up being taught by example that Filipinos and Indonesians are their inferiors, born to serve. In the Hong Kong movie Legendary Couple (95), a cop chases a suspect into Central on a Sunday afternoon. For years, Central is where thousands of Filipino maids gathered on Sundays, their one day off, to cut hair, hang out, hold church services, trade news from home, and generally relax. It is wall to wall domestic workers, yet the scene in Legendary Couple required the cop to accidentally kill an innocent bystander. So the cop fires into a crowd of domestic workers and his bullet somehow hits a lone Chinese schoolgirl hiding in their midst because the producers were fully aware that Hong Kong audiences could care less about a dead Filipino.
Having a strange woman move into your home to take care of your children is fraught with anxiety. Add in racial and religious tensions (most domestic workers are Christian or Muslim, most Chinese are neither) and you’ve got a powder keg. In Ilo Ilo (named after the province in the Philippines where Terry comes from), you’ve got added economic tension as the Lim family loses their grip on the economic ladder. Employing Terry becomes a status symbol they cling to, but also a reminder that all that separates her from them is ethnic difference and income. As their income dwindles to nothing, what’s left?
The Hollywood Reporter writes that “…there is too little dramatic spark here to attract overseas audiences,” but for me, every scene is loaded with tensions simmering just beneath the surface. Chen doesn’t beat audiences over the head with them, but the subtext is loaded, from the unfair treatment of domestic workers by the police to the shadow economy of second jobs they hold (illegally) and how some of them resort to extreme measures, including drugging their employers, to earn extra income. Played casually, moments when Hwee Leng confiscates Terry’s passport, or when Terry says grace at the table, hint at unspoken tensions.
It’s not all bleak and horrible, however. Domestic workers across Asia have started speaking out, demanding better treatment and working conditions. And Ilo Ilo shows that relations between the families and the domestic workers aren’t solely determined by race and class. When petulant Jiale gives Terry a grudging “Sorry” it’s like Dolly Parton singing “And I Will Always Love You,” and when Terry, who, like many domestic workers, has left her own child to earn money taking care of someone else’s, refers to Jiale as “my boy” it’s the kind of emotional mountaintop Rocky achieves with “Adrian! Adriannnn!!!”
The relationships between domestic workers and the families who employ them are two-way streets, a fact that Ilo Ilo is careful to show, mostly because Chen knows this firsthand. He and his brothers were raised by an amah until they were 12. They lost touch when she moved back to the Philippines (to Ilo Ilo, actually), but when his movie was released, the Filipino media picked up the story and the woman his family knew as Aunt Terry got in touch. Chen and his brother went to the Philippines to see her, a trip that he describes in an interview.
“She kept such strong memories of us because she didn't have children,” he says. “In fact, she had a blue pouch she wears everywhere she goes, and she told us that my mum gave it to her, like, 17 years ago. When she opened it, inside were photographs of me and my brothers. That really moved us to tears.”
The issue of domestic workers in Asia is a complicated tangle of interpersonal dynamics, racial tensions, and class issues. Then again, from a child’s point of view it’s not very complicated at all. Sometimes, someone shows up and gives you the kindness and attention you need. Maybe they’re Chinese, maybe they’re Filipino, maybe they’re Indonesian. Kids don’t care. Whoever it is, they’re family.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
…The big news out of Hong Kong is that everyone has decided it’s okay to reveal the city’s best-kept secret: no one likes comedian Stephen Chow. As Chow auditions actresses for his new movie, Mermaids, a website called Art Western District published a 50,000 word article titled, “Why So Many People Hate Stephen Chow Sing Chi?” Rather than a takedown, it was a long history of his career, featuring many never-before-seen photos from his childhood. It also contained a factoid that has made the rounds many times in the past: that Stephen Chow was denied entry into Canada in 1993 and 1996 because he had worked closely with the head of China Star, Charles Heung, a man authorities consider “mob connected.” Heung’s father was one of the founders of the Sun Yee On triad, which reportedly caused Heung’s own visa to Canada to be denied in 1995, even though no one thinks that Mr. Heung has anything to do with triads anymore. In fact, it’s generally believed that he left the triads far behind to become one of the most powerful men in Hong Kong film.
Heung’s wife, Tiffany Chen, was furious when she saw the article. “This online article truly is too harmful to my husband, so I have to come out and protect him,” she said. “This article is like his personal autobiography. Some of the childhood photos even the media may not have. Can a fan have so much information? I am only erupting after years of holding back.” And erupt she did, claiming that Chow was a spoiled, soulless ingrate with a high salary and no sense of respect. As she cut loose, other film industry players decided it was open season on Chow and unleashed the beast. Manager and actor Tin Kai-man accused him of being a cheapskate. Johnnie To, who has directed Chow, said, “I admire his talent, but not him as an individual.” Director Wong Jing said, “There are no more words left to describe Stephen Chow. He has been scolded endlessly. I don’t want to scold him from a new angle.” Co-star Andy Lau played it safe, trying to dispel rumors, and, when asked point-blank if they were friends, said, “I really don't dare to say, I don't know.” Chow’s girlfriend of 13 years, Alice Lo, filed suit against him last year, which doesn’t help matters.
…As the big film festivals like Venice and Toronto wind down, lots and lots of Asian movies played for Western audiences for the first time, and lots of reviewers filed their impressions. Here’s a round-up of the big ones:
Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom.
Bong Joon-ho-produced maritime disaster movie Haemoo.
No one seemed to like Andrew Lau’s Martin Scorsese-produced Chinatown gangland tale, Revenge of the Green Dragons, unfortunately.</p>
Im Kwon-Taek’s Reverie.
The latest arthouse mystery from China, Red Amnesia.
Ann Hui’s glitzy biopic The Golden Era.
South Korea’s up-with-people retail riff on Silkwood, Cart.
Japan’s master director, Tetsuya Nakashima’s latest, World of Kanako, starring Koji Yakusho.
And for another point of view, the Japan Times weighs in.
It’s also become a scandalous success in Japan.
Sion Sono’s crazy-town rap musical Tokyo Tribes.