• SHARE

At first glance, Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen’s “Ilo Ilo” is a familiar tale. A family in Singapore hire a Filipina maid to care for their irate 10-year-old son, an Asian brat extraordinaire. Eventually the boy bonds with the maid, and the two become closer to each other than their real families, much to the annoyance of the boy’s mother. But 15 minutes in you realize that at its core, “Ilo Ilo” isn’t about family or bonding or love. It’s about surviving the increasingly excessive capitalistic world in which money reigns over every aspect of our lives. That’s certainly true of the family in “Ilo Ilo,” as mother, father and son obsess and worry and fret over cash and income.

Tellingly, the film is set in 1997, when the region was gripped by the Asian financial crisis. Only the maid, Teresa (played by Angeli Bayani), has other things on her mind — namely the young son she has left behind in the titular Philippine city.

Last year, “Ilo Ilo” was the darling of major international film festivals, grabbing more than 20 awards including the coveted Camera d’Or (Golden Camera) at Cannes. At Tokyo Filmex, it won the Audience Award and pushed Angeli Bayani’s name onto the list of up-and-coming Asian actresses.

In an interview with The Japan Times Bayani says she enjoyed playing Teresa, but “even she’s always thinking about money, because she must send money back home, and for this she must put up with all sorts of hardships in a foreign country.

“I know so many Filipinos who leave their homes to become maids. When they do, their families are happy and everyone congratulates them. They just assume that soon the maid will send home the cash that could buy a car, an apartment in a city and so on.”

Bayani, one of the Philippines’ most prolific and successful actresses, says that this made her sad.

“I suppose the problem is deeply rooted in the way our government runs our country. They are not concerned about providing local employment, especially in the provinces. So everyone dreams of going to Manila, and when they do, they are likely to become informal settlers with no jobs, no homes and very little prospects for the future.”

That’s the reality, and it’s no wonder that women with rudimentary English skills will strive to find a way to get out of the country and seek employment as a maid in a wealthy Asian country. Their salaries are often minuscule, and like Teresa in “Ilo Ilo,” they’re forced to share their wards’ bedroom and sleep on a foam mattress.

“However little they’re paid, it’s in dollars,” says Bayani. “That’s huge when converted to Philippine pesos. And there is always a big support system among the maids. These women have an incredible solidarity and they really look out for each other. So there will never be a shortage of Filipina maids.”

Bayani did extensive research for this role, including interviewing working Filipina maids in Singapore.

“When they’re paid a decent wage, the job becomes great,” she says. “They can afford the latest iPhone, they can send a lot of money back home, they can get days off, and some can afford to move out of their employer’s place and share an apartment with other maids.”

But for the most part, like Teresa, they’re stuck with a raw deal.

In “Ilo Ilo,” the mother of the household confiscates Teresa’s passport as soon as she arrives, “so she won’t try to escape,” says Bayani. This is based on reality; according to Bayani the confiscation of passports still happens, more often than we’d like to think.

Today, different versions of “Ilo Ilo” exist and thrive everywhere. Different Teresas are up against different mistresses of the house — Latina maids in American households, South American maids in France, Indonesian maids in Hong Kong, and the list goes on.

Japanese women are not in the habit of outsourcing domestic help — least of all from abroad — but that’s another story.

“I think that’s because Japanese women are generally not English-speakers,” says Bayani. “In my country, and in many parts of Asia, English is key. We always learn it because otherwise our chances to get ahead are wiped out.”

In “Ilo Ilo,” the mother, Hwee Lang (Yann Yann Yeo), and Teresa communicate in English. To her husband and son, Hwee Lang speaks Chinese, but she goes back and forth with ease.

Japanese women, on the other hand, are shy about speaking English and completely unused to hiring domestic help.

“Maybe that will change,” says Bayani. “I hear more Japanese women are becoming very busy in the workplace. It’s tough to come home after a long day and do the chores and take care of the kids.”

Indeed. That toughness is what triggers Hwee Lang — an expectant mom and office worker — to hire help. She just can’t take it anymore. Hwee Lang spends all day typing redundancy letters, always wondering if she’ll ever have to type out a letter to herself. Her 10-year-old son, Jialer (Jialer Koh), is a handful, throwing tantrums, cutting school and generally misbehaving. Her husband, Teck (Tian Wen Chen), has just lost his job and blown his savings on the stock market, but she doesn’t know that yet.

For all the talk and concern over money, “Ilo Ilo” is a lovely movie. Jialer and Teresa share an unvoiced but heartfelt longing for love and connection that transcends the feverish pursuit of big paychecks and a so-called stable future. Unwittingly, they’ve tapped into the secret that money and happiness are often mutually exclusive, though the adults do their darndest to convince them otherwise.

“Many times, work and money will make women lonely,” says Bayani. “When housemaids finally pack up and go home, their families don’t know what to do with them and vice-versa. It’s a sad trade-off.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

PHOTO GALLERY (CLICK TO ENLARGE)