Writer-director Anthony Chen from Singapore has been living in London for ten years and he was present to introduce his film and then to offer a Q&A (which I had to leave after around 20 minutes to get to my next screening). Chen’s first film Ilo Ilo (Singapore 2013) won the Sutherland Prize for a ‘First Feature’ at LFF in 2013. The director explained that he had been involved in two other productions (as a writer and producer for his jointly-owned company Giraffe Pictures) since 2013, but also he needed a long time to make his own films because he is so concerned with the details of location, casting and production design.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this fascinating film is that the two principal characters are played by two of the leads from the earlier film, even though initially the director had been determined not to cast them. This isn’t such a minor point as will become apparent after a discussion about the plot outline. Yeo Yann Yann, the mother in the first film, now plays another woman in an unhappy marriage, but now she is a teacher in an English-medium high school (where students take a form of the traditional British O levels, still available internationally). This character, ‘Mrs Ling’, is under pressure in three ways. As a wife she has been undergoing intensive IVF procedures but has ‘failed’ after several years to become pregnant. She is also a migrant from Malaysia, married to a Singaporean man, and finally she is a teacher of Mandarin – a subject that is sidelined in a high school which is resolutely focused on English and Maths. Add to this that she has become the main carer of her father-in-law who is severely disabled and requires intensive personal care. A carer is with him during the school-day but it is Ling who must cope at all other times. Ling is determined to secure her place as a Mandarin teacher by improving her students’ grades and she organises a post-school remedial class. It quickly becomes apparent that only one boy, Wei-lun (Koh Jia Ler, the 10 year-old from Ilo Ilo, now a strapping 16 year-old), is prepared to take it seriously. When the other boys drift away, Wei-lun stays, citing his parents’ wish that he learns Mandarin to be able to ‘do business’ in China when he grows up.
As the relationship between Wei-lun and his teacher develops in this ‘after-school’ time, it becomes apparent that they are too lonely people who need each other and that makes them feel validated. (Wei-lun’s parents are away much of the time.) Later Ling will introduce Wei-lun to her father-in-law and the pair will bond over a love of martial arts. I won’t spoil the plot but you will guess where all of this is heading. What I do want to do is to discuss the film as a melodrama. Compared to relatively restrained Ilo Ilo, which I haven’t seen for a few years, this new film feels like a full-blown melodrama. I love melodramas and this was, for me, a successful film, but from the few reviews I’ve seen so far (mostly North American), it will suffer in the West because of melodrama’s poor reputation with contemporary audiences. But not here for me.
The starting point of the film is the winter monsoon season, when rain is torrential. In melodrama, rain is often associated with sexual desire/sexual release. It rains a lot in Singapore and when it rains, it’s heavy rain. Anthony Chen uses rain very effectively but he has other melo possibilities as well and this is where his meticulous attention to detail pays off. I’ll just mention a few instances. One of the key ‘significant objects’ of the narrative is the durian. The durian is a very large and heavy fruit which Ling breaks in two and then she scoops out handfuls of fleshy pulp which she shares with Wei-lun. Durian is native to Borneo and Sumatra and is imported into Singapore from Malaysia. In this sense it is like Ling herself. But the fruit is also divisive. While many love the fruit, many others think it has the most disgusting smell of any fruit. In Singapore there are shops and stalls devoted to the fruit but it is also banned from the transit system and many hotels because the smell is said to linger. The symbolic value of the image of eating durian should be clear (see the image of Ling and Wei-lun eating at the head of this blog post and in the clip below).
A second sequence involves Wei-lun taking part in a wushu contest – a display of a distinct form of martial arts movements. Anthony Chen told us that Koh Jia Ler had been interested in this activity as a young boy but now he trained intensively for several weeks to get to the standard necessary to win a gold medal in a national schools competition. Ling and her father-in-law support his performance. Finally, to emphasise the importance of location, Chen has two key scenes in which we see Ling and her banker husband Andrew each in their ‘natural habitats’. Andrew (Christopher Lee who is ironically Malaysian) is shown in Singapore’s financial district where the tall buildings are linked by green walkways. Ling is shown at one point in her home environment in rural Malaysia – a quieter, calmer and more organic environment. Chen told us the house in Malaysia took him a long time to find. (Yeo Yan Yan was also born in Malaysia.)
Yeo Yan Yan wore a wig for the part of Mrs Ling and Chen dresses her in what seemed to me to be fairly dowdy outfits with rather shapeless skirts and clumpy shoes for her teacher role. She comes across as an attractive woman who has lost interest in her appearance, which perhaps helps the idea that the confused Wei-lun sees her as both a teenage boy’s idea of an ‘older woman’ and a maternal figure. It’s an interesting and potentially disturbing basis for a student-teacher relationship. My impression is that as the narrative progresses her costumes become slightly less dowdy. As a melodrama with a woman at its centre, the other notable feature is that Ling doesn’t seem to have a close female friend but then the more I think about the film as a melodrama, the more interesting it gets. I need to see it again. At the moment, I don’t think that the film has a UK distribution deal in place. It is scheduled for release in Singapore in November and I think it may do well in Asia generally. The two leads are very good and the UK DoP Sam Care does a great job with director Chen’s careful selection of locations.
Might be the conjunction of the planets but there’s been a few interesting films on free-to-air UK TV recently. Ilo Ilo (the title, the Guardian’s reviewer says, is a “Mandarin phrase meaning “mum and dad not at home” – but the director says its title comes from the name of the province in the Philippines) is a family melodrama focusing on the impact of the economic crises for the ‘tiger economies’ in the 1990s. Coincidentally, similar to the film in my last post (The Olive Tree), economic issues form the context but the grandfather-grandchild is not so central in this Singaporean film. Angela Bayani plays Terry, the Filipina maid brought in to help with the badly-behaved 10 year-old, Jiale. Although wringing the child’s neck seems a reasonable reaction to his actions, it is clear that mum and dad’s problems have left him neglected. If there is one weakness in the film it’s the transition from antagonism to friendship in the relationship between Terry and Jiale is a little abrupt but everything else in writer-director Anthony Chen’s debut feature is convincing.
In one particularly effective scene a neighbour in the high-rise flats commits suicide from the building’s top. We experience this from Terry’s perspective; the shock she feels is palpable. Although we are not told why the person gave up his life it is likely the economic insecurity that led to his actions. Like in Falling Down (US, 1993), Jiale’s dad goes to work each day even though he doesn’t have a job. The American film was one of a number that reflected American anxiety at the rising economic power of East Asia; 20 years on it seems everyone is in decline (except China and India).
The film’s also emotionally engaging in terms of the plight of migrant workers. At best, they are treated as second class citizens – Terry’s passport is immediately confiscated by Jiale’s mother – and her desperation at being away from her baby is clear.
I noted in my post on The Olive Tree that melodrama is not an effective genre for instigating political action but is good for raising awareness. Ilo Ilo does this, for those of us in the west, about ordinary people’s lives in South East Asia. The insecure job market is endemic, as is the poor treatment of migrants. In the UK we are embarking on what will no doubt, if today’s disgusting (even by its standards) Daily Mail is allowed to set the tone, be a vicious election campaign where the right wing will shout down any compassion for others. Watching films from other cultures is one of the few ways we can learn to empathise with others as they are, of course, just like us.
The contempt for democracy, which requires dissent, is obvious in the headline but I wonder whether whoever chose the image of PM Teresa May realised how demonic she looks.
This was the one film I chose because of the auteur name attached. Eric Khoo is a respected director from Singapore who through his company Zhao Wei Films has also helped commercial co-productions with Malaysia to develop, especially horror productions. I managed to interview him in Oslo a few years ago. I booked this film ‘blind’ and was a little surprised by what it turned out to be – and even more surprised when I read some background after the screening.
Co-produced with Hong Kong producer Nansun Shi (ex-partner of Tsui Hark), In the Room seems to have been inspired by memories of erotic films of the 1970s and 1980s such as Emmanuelle and 9½ Weeks which were presumably hits in Hong Kong and Singapore, although with some cuts for cinema viewing I expect. In the Room is a set of encounters/liaisons in the same hotel room at different times over many years. The fictional Singupura Hotel is first seen in 1942 as a British planter is about to leave the island before the Japanese take over. He tries to persuade his lover, a married Chinese man who runs a rubber wholesaling company to leave with him. In the same Room 27 we then see a succession of guests from across South and East Asia involved in various liaisons. Eric Khoo has suggested that this format had the great advantage of fostering his co-production plans with actors from Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan. It was also a production that allowed him to shoot on a sound stage for the first time (all his previous work being location-based).
It seems odd to recall the erotic films from the past in the era of internet porn and the rather desperate attempts of Lars von Trier to present ‘explicit’ sexual content in his Nymphomaniac films. In the Room‘s sexual activity isn’t particularly arousing and I actually found much of it to be quite tender and moving. The professional critics at various festivals have been rather dismissive, claiming the script (most of the stories are written by Jonathon Lim) as the weakest element. I find this a bit strange since the scenes are mostly dialogue-driven and each scene, bar the first, is subtitled because the language is different. Perhaps the subtitles are not very good? They seemed fine to me. On the other hand, there is quite a lot of praise for the set design which I thought was OK but that the first set, filmed in Black and White, didn’t work for me.
There were indications in the film that it is in some ways ‘personal’ for Khoo. The Japanese woman is I think reading a manga by Tatsumi Yoshihiro (Eric Khoo made his animated feature Tatsumi (2011) about the manga artist/writer). The film is dedicated to Damien Sin who wrote Khoo’s first feature and in the film ‘Damien’ is a character in a 1970s (soft) rock band who dies of an overdose and then haunts Room 27 over the rest of the film. This supernatural narrative strand also includes a young woman who works as a maid in the hotel and who meets Damien on the fateful night.
The question of censorship is interesting because reading through the reviews of North American screenings, it’s apparent that the print for the LFF has been shorn of what sounds like a more explicit/outrageous segment in which a bar-room ‘madam’ performs the old trick of ‘firing’ table tennis balls from her vagina – a nod to the brothels inhabited by British soldiers in Singapore and Malaysia in the 1960s perhaps? The LFF print is presumably the one that is intended to be released in South East and East Asia. I can’t say this film is up to Eric Khoo’s earlier standards but it’s better I think than the reviews so far suggest. I even quite liked the music and the song that Damien composes.
The trailer for Toronto:
The title of this film refers to a province of the Philippines, Iloilo, from where a new maid arrives in Singapore in 1997. The collapse of the ‘tiger economies’ is underway but it hasn’t yet hit the parents of ten year-old Jaile. He is a bright but unruly boy, missing his grandfather who died recently. Now his heavily pregnant mother is finding housework and a full-time job too much to cope with. Tension exists between her and the boy’s father, a not very successful salesman. The family is described as ‘middle-class’ in several reviews but this is a definition of Asian families that in the West might be better defined as ‘lower middle-class’. The family has little extra money and the maid is a necessity to allow mother to work.
The film is informed by the memories of its young writer-director Anthony Chen who developed a strong relationship with his own ‘yaya’ as a young boy. What he has created here is a well worked out and beautifully executed family drama which allows space for each of the four principal characters to have their own separate narratives – though it is the boy and Teresa (‘Terry’) the maid who tend to dominate. Chen studied film first at home in Singapore and later at the National Film School in the UK (where he met his French DoP Benoit Soler) – he is now based in London. There is that same mixing of influences – British social realism, Chinese and Japanese family drama/melodrama – that we associate with films from Ann Hui and other Hong Kong filmmakers as well as Taiwanese New Cinema directors. Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a useful reference, but I’ve also seen references back to Ozu and to contemporary Kore-eda. Not surprisingly perhaps, there are also glimpses of Eric Khoo’s work on Be With Me. The result is a first feature (after several shorts screened at festivals) that won the Camera d’or at Cannes in 2013.
The film is quite ‘clean’ and ‘open’ in its depiction of 1997 – it doesn’t have that same sense of atmosphere and city vibrancy that is often evident in the Hong Kong films leading up to the handover. Partly, I think, this is a function of the very different ‘feel’ in Singapore, characterised perhaps by the orderly ‘pledge to the nation’ made by the pupils at Jaile’s (English medium) grammar school. The sense of time and place is created in quite a subtle way, although younger audiences will probably spot the period markers more easily than older audiences. Jaile’s mother works on an electric typewriter and his father drives a battered Honda Accord. (I have difficulty in distinguishing car models over the last twenty years.)
The drama is quite straightforwardly constructed as a conventional ‘getting to know you’ narrative between the maid and the boy set against the problems arising from the stress the parents begin to feel as the recession bites. At first Jaile resents Terry’s presence and deliberately tries to make her life miserable but a dramatic incident brings them together and soon they are supporting each other. Overall, this is another of those ‘nothing much happens’ family narratives that stand in stark contrast to Hollywood entertainment. But what ‘doesn’t happen’ is actually absorbing, partly because of the excellent performances (by actors drawn from TV and film industries in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines plus a remarkable boy) but also the attention to detail. The only disappointment for me was not finding out more about the life Terry left behind to come to Singapore – there is a dramatic revelation but then little more. Is there any other nation that has exported so many workers overseas as the Philippines? There is a story there that needs to be told in more depth. In the meantime I look forward to more from Anthony Chen. This is another little gem, picked up by Soda Pictures in the UK, that requires much more exposure.
Press Pack (from US Film Movement website)
Official Trailer (which does give away many plot details):