In Ilo Ilo, director Anthony Chen depicts the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s in a decaying, claustrophobic world of temp job insecurity, bleeping Tamagotchis, bubble tea, and crooked hucksters selling “opportunity.”
Children play in the streets, seemingly oblivious to the cratered economy, but susceptible to the anxiety of their parents, aware of the laid-off workers throwing themselves from rooftops, and paying way more attention to the national lottery numbers than kids really should.
Small details and incidents accrete into a pointillist rendering of despair. Teresa (Angeli Bayani), a young Filipina mother, has come to Singapore to earn money to care for her own distant family, working as a maid in the household of the pregnant Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) and the slobby, shambling Teck (Chen Tian Wen), a couple scrambling to support their maladjusted son, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), and prepare for their unborn child.
At first, resentful nine-year-old Jiale is angry that he has to share a room with the maid, bullying her and attempting to make trouble with his mother. But in the absence of his overworked parents, Teresa is his most reliable companion, their relationship evolving over six months into a cocktail of exasperation and love. Teresa struggles to maintain her poise against the growing resentment of Leng, who is jealous of the maid’s friendship with her son.
But where other films would pivot on that conflict alone, Ilo Ilo is about all four of the principal characters attempting to preserve their dignity in a world with a vested interest in stripping it away.