In Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo, one finds the setting – the two bedroom HDB apartment – to be the most pertinent element shaping the plot of the film, while themes of loss, dysfunctional relationships, and classism are hinted at as well. The film is definitely recommended, and is almost reminiscent of Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys in 1997, which was also focused around a block of flats.
Ilo Ilo chronicles the story of a lower middle class Chinese Singaporean family in the throes of financial and personal turmoil. The emotionally uninvolved, yet fiery and impatient patriarch Teck, loses his white collar job to become a security guard as the status quo of the 1997 Asian financial crisis looms over both him and his family. Teck is neglectful of his wife’s needs during her pregnancy. The mise-en-scene of her climbing a series of steps, totally exhausted, justifies the presence of domestic helper Teresa (Terry) in the household, to possibly soothe her emotional and physical stress.
Yet Terry’s presence exacerbates the problem. She is perhaps Chen’s attempt to embody the plight of many domestic helpers in Singapore – the mise-en-scene of Hwee Leng giving her the blue cup, even though she picked the red cup emphasizing her lack of agency. The family’s apartment, dinner table, and car become even more cramped, compromising the individuality of each character. The mise-en-scene of Jiale bursting into the room when Terry is changing her clothes indicating the loss of her individuality and privacy. As 85% of the resident Singaporean population lives in comprehensively planned, high-rise estates, this film is perhaps emphasizing the social consequences of cohabitation in small apartments.
Terry’s arrival emphasizes the reversal of roles in the household, as she becomes a maternal figure to Jiale. The mise-en-scene of her dressed in one of Hwee Leng’s dresses, wearing a brown satchel akin to hers, with Hwee Leng dressed similarly, creates a mirror image in both Jiale and the spectator’s mind. That Hwee Leng admonishes her for dressing similarly indicates her that her growing jealousy of Jiale and Terry’s relationship supersedes her concern for Jiale’s welfare. It could also be Hwee Leng’s attempt to restrict Terry’s identity, just as her small apartment has restricted her own. The fiery, controlling, violent, exhausted, possibly emotionally abusive Hwee Leng is never seen pursuing any hobbies, and so the mise-en-scene of her crying after hearing of the motivational speaker’s arrest is cathartic. The mise-en-scene of Teck laying in her lap while she cries gives an almost “maternal” feel to their relationship. Chen may be hinting at the zeitgeist of wives expected to emotionally and physically manage everything and everyone in the household, including their husbands, whether or not they are pregnant.
Perhaps Teck is not entirely to blame here; he too is left embarrassed as he cannot wear what he wants at home, or smoke inside the house. The mise-en-scene of him scolding Terry for trying to wash his clothes could be seen as his attempt to assert his individuality, his personal space. He’s expected to bring home the bread, and if he fails to do so – just as his announcement of his accident at work indicated – he will be admonished for it, the mise-en-scene of Hwee Leng throwing a pillow at him emphasizing a degree of victimization. Jiale’s rebellious behavior – smoking, fighting, stealing – throughout is perhaps his rebellion against the traditional household family dynamics, which have grown to become oppressive and deeply dysfunctional. The mise-en-scene of Terry telling Jiale that she won’t be “bullied” best highlights their dysfunction, as a young boy has now taken to bullying an adult woman.
There is no “male gaze” in the film, besides that expecting women to manage all household related affairs. It is hard to characterize Ilo Ilo as emphasizing just family dynamics or dysfunctional relationships or the social consequences of living in a small apartment or even the plight of foreign domestic workers in Singapore. Perhaps loss and irony characterize the film, the loss of employment, identity, and even life at the apartments coinciding with the inclusion of daughters and domestic helpers into the household.