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Award-winning director Anthony Chen on ‘Ilo Ilo’ and the life of a filmmaker

WHAT makes an award-winning movie? What does it take to be a filmmaker? Diane Leow chats with Singaporean director Anthony Chen, who is in town to promote his film Ilo Ilo at the Melbourne International Film Festival. 

Singapore in the late nineties was quite different to what it is today. Its cityscape was not as iconic – the Marina Bay Sands hadn’t been conceptualised; and the Singapore Flyer did not exist at the time. While populated by skyscrapers and a workforce determined to plough through the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, many lost their jobs, some unable to find work for long periods.

This is where Singaporean film director Anthony Chen decided to set his first feature film, exploring the tensions between family during trying times, and a family’s relationship with their new domestic helper.

Domestic helpers are a common sight in Singapore. Families often hire a domestic helper (also known as “maid”) from Indonesia or the Philippines to help with household chores, cooking, and taking care of children. Yet when circumstances change and their services are no longer required, the separation between them and the family can be quite painful, especially after years of service.

A bonding moment between Jia Ler, the film's protagonist, and the family's domestic helper. Photo: Screenshot from Ilo Ilo's trailer

A bonding moment between Jia Ler, the film’s protagonist, and the family’s domestic helper. Photo: Screenshot from Ilo Ilo’s trailer

Chen reflected on his childhood for his first feature film. Growing up, his family hired a domestic helper – known to him as Auntie Terry – from the city of Iloilo in the Philippines, who was part of Chen’s family for about 8 years. While his memories of Auntie Terry are a little hazy, he distinctly remembers his pain on the day she left Singapore for good. That was the starting point for Ilo Ilo.

While Chen has achieved success with his debut feature film, his decision to enter the filmmaking industry was first met with opposition from parents and well-meaning relatives.

I think it’s a very natural thing, particularly in Singapore where it’s such a practical and pragmatic society. Trying to go into the arts… I’m not sure any decent family would actually say, ‘Go!'” – Anthony Chen

Fortunately, his mum was very supportive of his career choice.

Ilo Ilo, named after Auntie Terry’s hometown, has garnered much praise abroad – first winning the coveted Caméra d’Or (Golden Camera) award at the Cannes Film Festival for the best first feature film, and selling out at film festivals around the world. It opens in Singapore later this month.

16 years on, Singapore has emerged from the Asian Financial Crisis and blossomed into the region’s go-to destination. Yet some things don’t change. With some 208,400 domestic helpers in Singapore, many children are still brought up by their maids. Individual families continue to go through trying times, regardless of the economy. Ilo Ilo demonstrates how relationships bring us together even when everything seems to be falling apart – and is a great reminder that it is people who truly matter.

Ilo Ilo is showing on Thursday, August 8 at the Greater Union Cinema as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, which runs till August 11. For more information, visit their website.

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