Monday 5 May 2014

Nanny state: "Ilo Ilo"

Ilo Ilo is the first film from Singapore to have entered into UK circulation for some years, and while the Sutherland Award at last year's London Film Festival suggested a ready sympathy for it in these parts, its appearance might also owe something to the fact it might just be pitched by enterprising exhibitors as Mary Poppins with extra bite. Writer-director Anthony Chen here offers the tale of a middle-class couple who hire a Filipina nanny, Teresa (Angeli Bayani), to tidy their home and look after their tweenage first born while they await the birth of their second. The first deviation from movie norms is that the kid, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), is no cute cherub, but a more or less total shit: a goofy-looking delinquent-in-waiting who, in the absence of much parental affection, delights in giving his new keeper the runaround, dropping unpaid-for items into her bags while out shopping, locking her out of the family's apartment, and then physically assaulting her after she asks him to finish his homework. 

What Chen goes on to provide is some context for this shittiness, and with it, the sly insinuation that while it might be understandable for a kid barely out of nappies to behave like an unfeeling jerk, no such mitigation might be entered on behalf of those around him: his comfortably numb mother (Yann Yann Yeo), who - despite her swelling belly - proves so empty she winds up being taken in by the claims of a motivational guru, or his muddling father (Tian Wen Chen), mostly absent on business he displays no particular aptitude for. Real moral or spiritual guidance seems to be at a premium here - the devout Teresa, who crosses herself at the dinner table, is advised by a neighbour to throw away her rosary, as God doesn't live here any more - and the sense something is supremely rotten in this state redoubles when the nanny scurries outside to retrieve some washing she's dropped from a balcony, only to witness a fellow tenant throwing himself to his death off the building's roof. The paramedics arrive to scrape the body off the pavement; no-one else appears to bat an eyelid.

Chen's style is becalmed and observational, fostering performances that remain on the right side of caricature, but he keeps slipping in these kinds of sharp digs at his homeland; whenever Ilo Ilo seems to be heading towards the cuddly humanism of a Hirokazu Kore-Eda film, say, it pulls out a knife to poke the viewer in the ribs. A succession of lulling, Ozu-like pillow shots - empty rooms, dripping taps - get rudely interrupted with an insert of a flapping chicken, its throat cut, spraying blood up the bathroom walls. The narrative may gesture towards hugs all round - and the nanny and her naughty charge do, sort of, bond over their shared outsider status, prisoners in their own household - yet the characters have none to give, and if they did, it would surely only be to reach into the huggee's back pocket and make off with their wallet. 

Money, inevitably, seems to be the root of all evils here, as glimpsed in the boy and his father's desperate clinging to lottery tickets that never quite pay off for them, a plot point that proves at least as sad as it is pointed. Chen is more restrained and less in-yer-face about it, but there are times when Ilo Ilo feels like a continuation of that critical project initiated by Takashi Miike in his millennial bad-taste classic Visitor Q: to puncture the placid conservatism we've come to associate with Asia (and Asian cinema) and expose the grasping heartlessness and intolerance that lies beneath. I've seen the results described in certain quarters as "sweet", yet they're just as surely soursweet, a flavour that tends to linger far longer: persuasive yet wholly unsparing as a modern family portrait, and quietly devastating as a state-of-the-nation address.

Ilo Ilo is now playing in selected cinemas.

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