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Ilo Ilo - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Ilo Ilo
Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Jiale is one annoying little boy. Played by a young actor named Koh Jia Ler, it's difficult to gauge the performance, or even know the extent to which he's "acting." This is often a problem with child actors, but exacerbated by what might otherwise get lost in translation: the kid only speaks English when speaking to Teresa (Angeli Bayani), the new live-in Filipino maid. They don't speak each other's languages, so they speak to each other in English. And Teresa has to reprimand this little shit in English with increasing frequency.

Early on, it seems this boy might just ruin the movie. He engages in annoying behavior just for the sake of being annoying -- or, presumably, attention. You long for someone to slap him. A few times, someone does. It's a little satisfying.

Jiale's parents, Tek (Tian Wen Chen) and Hwee Leng (Yann Yann Yeo), seem to love him, in their aloof way. But they are both driven to distraction by their work situations. It's mid-nineties Singapore and a financial crisis is underway. Hwee Leng is writing up letters terminating employment. Tek loses one job and then another, moving from salesman to toll booth operator.

Teresa comes before things get particularly bad. Hwee Leng argues that she needs someone to help with household chores as she's gotten so busy. Tek makes some unwise investments and Hwee Leng gets suckered into a self-help scam, so it turns out the timing wasn't really the best.

There's a strange comfort to the deceptive tedium of Ilo Ilo, whatever that title means. Just when Jiale has seemed too much, he endears himself to the viewer, just as he does to Teresa -- at the same time Hwee Leng starts getting jealous of the boy's increasing affection for Teresa. Writer-director Anthony Chen offers an unusually strong feature debut here, presenting his characters with a comfortable, natural style. Everyone and everything here feels real.

A strange and unique family dynamic develops between all four of them, as Jiale continues getting into trouble at school, and the family's financial troubles deepen. It's a relief that nothing particularly tragic occurs, although they come close a couple of times. But neither is this a particularly happy story. It is a satisfying one. The characters are fully realized in a way they seldom are in American films -- and in comparatively subtle ways, which makes them less interesting to most American audiences. But these are emblematic of real lives in other places, and their stories are worth sharing.

Koh Jia Ler and Angeli Bayani bond in ILO ILO.

Overall: B+
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