*SPOILERS AHEAD – Skip this if you haven’t watched Ilo Ilo, and you intend to*

So if you’re Singaporean/living in Singapore, you would have probably heard of the name Anthony Chen or Ilo Ilo ( now. If you haven’t, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? Anthony, who directed the film, won the Camera d’Or award for his work. It was also the first Singaporean feature film to win an award at the Cannes Film Festival. #sgpride.

I remember reporting for the morning shift months back, and saw a barrage of emails regarding Anthony’s win, and because of the line of my work, I was tasked to conduct a short phone interview with Anthony hours after he clinched the prize, who by the way, is really friendly. It was a feel-good moment, knowing that Singapore does have talent and that it has received international recognition.

I watched the trailer when it was first out, and I immediately teared up, in the office in fact, because I personally could relate to the film. My relationship with my maid, but I call her Auntie or Tiatia, is beyond that of a child-caretaker role. I think Anthony said it best, when he said in an interview that he “belongs to a generation of Singaporeans who were reared with the help of Filipino hands”. Often times, I think people forget that they are human after all – they have a family back home and at the end of the day, they do have feelings. I’ve seen families create a healthy relationship with their helpers, and in return, received the same gratitude back. If I may quote this verse from the bible, Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:31)

Set in Singapore, ILO ILO chronicles the relationship between a family of three and their newly arrived Filipino maid, Teresa, who has come like many other Filipino women in search of a better life.

The entire family needs to adapt to the presence of this stranger, which further threatens their already strained relationship. Still, Teresa and Jiale, the young and troublesome boy she cares for, soon form a bond. Their unique connection continues to develop and soon she becomes an unspoken part of the family.

But this is 1997 and the Asian Financial Crisis is starting to be felt in all the region…

Because I have friends who love me, Peace brought me as her plus one (job perks whee!) to one of the screenings yesterday. I had high expectations, I must admit, but I think overall, it was a good film. The theatre was packed, which was an extremely promising sight. I think moviegoers in Singapore are starting to get a taste of something that is produced by our locals, other than our standard slapstick comedies. It’s something that I have also written about here. Onward!

I am always fascinated by every directors’ thought process and motivation – why do they film things a certain way, what message are they trying to tell the audiences? As I watched the film, there were certain scenes that left an impression on me – in the cinema, it was like prac crit all over again, and my mind was just going bam, what is this! What does this mean? I think the director is trying to say this – I blame it my Literature degree and the Asian Film History class I took which was conducted by Tan Bee Thiam at NTU. People are going to be like gurrrrrrl, you think too much. I say, meh! 


  1. Hair – there were many points in the film that focused on the idea of one’s hair. To name a few, the most in-your-face-hair-moment was when Jia Le (the young boy, played by Koh Jia Le) snipped off Terry’s (his helper, played by Angeli Bayani) hair in the taxi moments before her return back home to the Philippines. Let’s not forget that Terry also moonlighted as a hairdresser to earn some extra cash. And about three quarters into the film, we suddenly see a new Jia Le, with a shaven head. We also see that in Terry, but much earlier on in the film. Noticed how her hair was all combed to the back, tied up fairly messily, but later on, her hairstyle changed – it was tied up much neater than before, with her hair half-up/half-down. Lastly, remember how Jia Le used to say, your hair very 臭 leh which also translates to your hair is very smelly. I cracked up at that point, the actor delivered it with such earnestness that it tugged at my heartstrings.

    My take:  Hair, in the film, represents your past/present and the snipping/removal of hair signifies the process of change and renewal. This was evident when Jia Le sported a new hairstyle – he was previously a playful student who caused his mom (played by Yeo Yann Yann) to worry. He had also disliked his Auntie Terry when she first arrived at his home, but with a newly shaven head, it signified a change in him – he had taken a liking to Auntie Terry and their relationship had improved tremendously. As for Terry, working as a hairdresser to earn some cash was her means of changing her life – to create a better life for her family back in the Philippines. The change in her hairstyle in the film also represented the change of her status – she wasn’t just a helper anymore, but in addition to being a hairdresser, she was a helper that was appreciated, and who started to take on motherly roles in caring for Jia Le. Lastly, I think the shot where Jia Le held on tightly to bits of Terry’s hair after snipping it off shows that other than it being a momento, he wants to hold on to a bit of the past – that is, his time spent with Auntie Terry. I think this was my favourite moment in Ilo Ilo.

  2. chickemChickens – this was hard to miss. The imagery was very direct – Jia Le’s father bought him chicks to keep as pets after watching a shot on tv of chicks being hatched. The 3 chicks then grew into plump chickens. One of the chickens was killed (and this gruesome scene was shown as well) to offer to Jia Le’s grandfather who had passed on. Another chicken was cooked and braised for their meals. Then of course,  the family ate KFC on Jia Le’s birthday. A little more subtle was Jia Le’s obsession with playing with his Tamagotchi (a virtual pet simulation game where you raise the animal from an egg to a fully grown chick).

    My take: What I understood from the use of chickens is probably not right, but I think the portion where the chickens were kept behind a coop spoke volumes. I felt that the chickens represented us, the people and our society – and taking into consideration the financial environment of that time, and how Jia Le’s father (played by Chen Tian Wen) and mother struggled financially – it sort of signified how we have grown to be part of the rat race in Singapore in our endless pursuit of money and a better life. We hatch from eggs, to chicks, and then to fully-grown chickens. The ones who don’t do well, and can’t emerge – they drop out (they get killed, and eaten like the shot of KFC). The Tamagotchi could also mean our wired-up Singapore and our obsession with technology – but I could be pushing it a little too far here. Hehe.

  3. Toilet – we see this when Terry bathes Jia Le, when Jia Le’s father washes his clothes in the middle of the night, when Jia Le’s mom uses the toilet in her very pregnant state.

    My take: It represents our vulnerability. To begin with, bathing or using the toilet is a very personal and intimate moment. It is those few moments when we are alone and don’t have to put on a mask for anyone. So similarly, Jia Le allows Terry to bathe him, and as a young boy almost hitting puberty, by allowing Terry to do so, is to let her in on his most vulnerable moments, and that at the end of the day, as naughty or stubborn as he may be, he still yearns for love and for someone to care for him. The same goes for Jia Le’s father – he washes his clothes in the toilet, refusing to let his wife or anyone find out about him losing his job. Losing his job was a dampener to his pride, more so, given that he is the head of the family.

There are many other recurring themes in the film such as Jia Le’s obsession with numbers and 4D (lottery), perhaps it tells of Singapore’s obsession with 4D as well? Haha, maybe, maybe not. Ilo Ilo had so much Singaporean flavour in it – it was telling of our quirks and the way we operate – but it also boasts of universal themes that would be relevant to Singaporeans as well as the rest of the world. I think, it is also a homage to the foreign help we have received in our country – be it domestic helpers, construction workers etc.

Go watch!

Photo credit: Ilo Ilo


2 thoughts on “ILO ILO

  1. Nice review! I agree that Jia Ler delivered the “your hair very 臭 leh!” extremely well.

    Being Filipino, the parts that struck me were when Auntie Terry made the sign of the cross at the start of the meal and everyone was taken aback and the passport handover scene. I could relate to the first very well and we’ve heard countless stories of the 2nd part that turned bad (employer abusing the helper and threatening to throw out the passport – this is in some other part of the world by the way). Both scenes tugged my heart.

    It is heartwarming to see that our domestic helpers are being paid homage to. I hope people who watch this would appreciate them more!

    • glad to see you enjoyed the film as well! 🙂 did you manage to pick out some of our singaporean quirks? it’s great seeing an international audience appreciate the film. plus i think the employee vs helper mindset has to change, in Singapore and in many parts of the world – i’m glad this is one step forward!

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