Glancing around the theater, Anthony Chen sighs with relief seeing that none of the audience members have stormed out. It’s the third time the projector has broken down and the first time this director assumes the worst: the judges of this most prestigious film festival will surely snub him, the notoriously hypercritical audience will surely resent him for the numerous halts in the film-going experience, and all of Chen’s painstaking work will surely have been for naught.
The credits roll, and Chen looks to his feet for escape. But then, he realizes he is now the only sitting audience member. As the echo of applause bounces through the theater for a resounding 15 minutes, Chen knows his first film has achieved something more than he expected.
This was Chen’s heart-stopping experience at the 2013 Cannes International Film Festival. He was awarded the prestigious Caméra d’Or prize, which honors the best debut film, for Ilo Ilo – a film that brings beauty to the big screen.
Ilo Ilo tells the story of a lower-middle class Singaporean family. The parents hire a nanny to help with keeping the household and their unruly son in order while they work their menial day jobs. Needing someone who can bridge the complicated language gap, they choose a young Filipino woman named Theresa (Angeli Bayani), who has no idea what she just got herself into.
Loosely inspired by Chen’s own childhood, Ilo Ilo is set in 1997 Singapore when the country faced a serious financial crisis, testing the middle class with few jobs and low salaries. Ten-year-old Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) watches his parents as they desperately scrap for something meaningful in their lives. With Auntie “Terry” in the mix now, he can target his mischievous energy elsewhere.
Jiale puts Terry through hell and back by bullying her, setting her up and making her seem like an incompetent fool; he clearly has no interest in getting to know her.
However, with only his Tamagatchi to connect with, Jiale reluctantly finds a companion in Terry after a slow battle of push and pull. It is that companionship that seems to unravel the already fragile familial unit.
A small Filipino town where the real Terry hails from, Chen explains that "Ilo Ilo" was the first word he wrote on the script. It embodies everything that Terry is and Singapore isn’t, and what happens when those two worlds are enmeshed. But even though that element is the source of inspiration for Chen’s tale, he knew he had to branch away from real events to get something cinematic. After all, as Chen attested, “Real life doesn’t have dramatic structure.”
And it’s true. If he had been wholly autobiographical, we would have seen a goody-two-shoes boy getting along famously with everyone, rather than a troublemaker wreaking havoc wherever he can. In other words: of course we’d rather watch a bull in a china store.
Bringing this non-fictional/fictional world to fruition, however, was far more complicated than Chen ever expected.
Chen admitted it was tough being a first-time feature director, especially having to write, direct and produce it all himself. Overwhelmed up to the point where he felt he could lose control of his story at any moment, he had to dig deep for the voice that would set his career on path. Mixing obsessive tendencies with an innate urge to strip away structure, the newcomer often found himself at a standstill.
“I’m a little bit schizophrenic when it comes to [my directing style], because I’m trying to find a lot of precision in my work, trying to have a lot of control,” he said. “But at the same time…the other side of my head really believes in this philosophy that [with] a masterpiece or a great piece of art, you kind of want to see it as a whole, as an entirety. And you don’t want to see every single brushstroke that is made on the canvas. So in a way, being so precise, you’re going to see the skeletons.”
Whatever skeletons there may be, it’s clear the public and critics alike don’t mind them. Ever since he’s started on the campaign with Ilo Ilo, he’s found almost nothing but praise.
While that’s all good and well, the humble Singapore native seems to have been swept up by the frenzy of festivals and constant traveling, and he hasn’t been able to appreciate his big moment.
“I feel very happy for the film, but I’m not sure if I’m happy for me, myself… I think probably, hopefully, within the next six months I’ll have time to really settle down and make sense of what an incredible journey this is,” he said. “The film has moved on so quickly, it’s running so fast, that I’m still playing catch up.”
While it might seem sad that such an achievement cannot be soaked up immediately, it also seems as though Chen will only begin to feel his success when audiences around the world are done gobbling up his beautiful and quietly engaging Ilo Ilo.
There will be a Q&A with director Anthony Chen following the 6:45 p.m. shows on Friday, April 4 and Saturday, April 5 at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in NYC. For more information, click here.
There will also be a Q&A with Chen at Cinema Village on Friday, April 4 at 7:30 p.m. For more information, click here.
Enter to win an Ilo Ilo autographed poster and DVD by clicking here!