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 it’s 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):
Tatsumi is a rather wonderful film that was released domestically in Singapore after winning plaudits at various festivals. It’s an unusual animated film that successfully manages to combine a biography of a Japanese manga author with representations of several of his stories to produce a coherent narrative. But as director Eric Khoo remarked after its screening here in Oslo it still has to go to the Tokyo International Film Festival and that will have a bearing on how the film fares in the Japanese market. It’s due out in the UK in January 2012 via Soda and international sales are stacking up via the German agents The Match Factory.
The Oslo screening was accompanied by an exhibition of the original artwork used in the film and introduced by Eric Khoo himself.
Eric Khoo was once himself a comic book artist but he had not thought that he had the patience to undertake an animated production . . . until he read the autobiographical manga, The Drifting Life by Tatsumi Yoshihiro published in 2009. See this website for previews of Tatsumi’s work in new Canadian published editions. Tatsumi (born 1935) became associated in Japan with a new form of manga dealing with much more realist themes and named gekiga, a term Tatsumi is said to have originated and which was taken up by some other writers. This might be seen as similar to the development of ‘graphic novel’ as a term in North America. Khoo’s problem was that he didn’t speak Japanese and he knew he must get full co-operation from Tatsumi himself. He managed to arrange an interview via a friend at Fuji Film and managed to convince Tatsumi that any film that he made would be faithful to the Tatsumi drawing style.
To produce the film, Khoo’s company Zhao Wei films worked with Infinite Frameworks (ifw) a company based in Singapore and the Indonesian island of Batam (only 40 miles away by fast boat) with whom Khoo had made several previous films. This local co-operation produced Tatsumi relatively quickly and inexpensively – without sacrificing any quality. They developed a very simple animation style that used Tatsumi’s original drawings as a model but also colouring some of the earlier black and white outlines. In this YouTube clip, Khoo and the animators explain how they approached the task (beware it is also an ad for Intel and Hewlett-Packard!):
Tatsumi was a young teenager in the immediate post-war period in Japan under the Allied Occupation. His first success as a manga story-teller came early and he was inspired by both competition from his brother and by meeting one of the leading manga/anime figures of the day Tezuka Osamu. But eventually Tatsumi tired of what he felt were the constrictions of manga aimed primarily at children and he developed the gekiga form in the late 1950s. Interestingly he returned to his memories of the immediate postwar period in his new work. Stories such as ‘Hell’ (the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb) and ‘Goodbye’ (about a prostitute whose clients are American GIs) set up a tone that is also present in more contemporary (i.e. 1970s) stories about alienation from work and family in ‘Beloved Monkey’, ‘Occupied’ and ‘Just a Man’. I’m fascinated by these two periods of Japanese Cinema (and literature) so I found these stories – and the surrounding material relating to Tatsumi’s struggles to get them published – very engaging. It will be interesting to see what kinds of audience reactions the film gets on its international release. I would hope that it would receive as much attention as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but I think that film has a much more recognisable story and theme. I would urge you to give Tatsumi a go. I’m sure that you will recognise some of the images from Japanese Cinema and then find the story of Tatsumi the artist as interesting as I do.