Ilo Ilo movie – A quiet struggle of life

Cannes #2 - Ilo Ilo is a movie released in the year 2013. This film essay tries to capture the essence of the film that makes it one of the best Singapore movies.

‘Ilo Ilo’ – This movie happens around 1997 at the time of the Great East Asian economic crisis. It deals with a middle-class family who hires a maidservant to take care of their brattish son. The boy hates the maid and tries to frame her for all his atrocities. But he gradually takes a liking towards her. As their bond deeply develops, things begin to change in the boy’s family and their environment. As the maid slowly becomes the mother the boy was yearning for, his actual mother finds their relationship difficult to apprehend. What happens after forms the rest of the movie’s plot.

The quilting

A movie that manages to portray life in its daily poetic essence stays with me for a long time. This movie will linger with me for days and months to come. The name of this movie will bring in a smile whenever I hear of it. When a film sticks to its basics and explores the infinite possibilities within, it turns out to be a rewarding experience for the viewers. Why? Because of its simplicity. Because of its unsung melancholy. It is not wrong to say that ‘Ilo Ilo’ ensures to keep the enigma of film making and its narrative.

One of my favourite directors out there, Myssikin, often stresses on a point that all his stories need just 30 % of the actors’ contribution. The remaining 70% gets filled by the plot and audience. He expects his actors to give their 30 % and allow the remaining aspects of the film to fill the gaps. A film should never focus on an individual character but the role of that character in the plot. I had strongly felt this pattern implemented in all of his movies.

Many good movies, especially dramas, try to use this principle of not allowing the characters to dominate the overall gravity of the plot. There will be moments where one persona takes charge of the viewers’ attention in the film. But as the story progresses, this moment gradually fades off. Generally, at the end of such movies, the audience will empathize on more than one characters irrespective of whether those characters play protagonists or antagonists. In this way, the film looks like a unit with diverse actors playing their subtle roles for the common goal of the dramatic visuals and the overall cinematic enclosing.

‘Ilo Ilo’ precisely accomplishes this. All four main characters in the movie weave their individuality in the provided limited quilting screen space. And there is not a single instance where a character tries to dominate the screen. That’s one of the most prominent positives for the movie. With a snail-pacing screenplay throughout, the reality that the characters breathe in provides a substantial life to the film. The maid, the mother, the father and the son are all thrown into the bonfire of life, and before they could realize and find ways to get out, they get burned by the hotness around and slowly accept to suffer.

Ilo ilo feature
Teck breaks down on his wife’s lap as he shares the struggle of both

Every character gives a powerful impact creating a lasting impression on both the story and the future of the characters. Though the film does not follow a well-defined three-act structure, it handles the plot well with well-placed conflicts everywhere. All the characters face initial suffering, then undergo their fights to overcome the obstacle and in the process, start facing even more significant problems and at last, they disperse with a big question mark over their future.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this story happens during the 1997 financial crisis. This crisis did result in a loss of many jobs and decreased currency values. As with many other financial crises, the middle class were left stranded with damages that could last through generations.


Hwee Leng – The mother is uncertain of her job with a new child coming up. To make things worse, she is the one her boss prefers to type the dismissal letters of the company’s employees.
Teck – The father is on the brink of losing a job he seldom perfected and tries to earn through stocks.
Jiale – Their boy is on the verge of a teenage crisis as he starts to hate his school and his parents.
Teresa – The going to be house-maid is looking for a job that could help her child grow.

Now, as the characters try to face the challenges and find solutions, the film takes on a rough phase where all the characters get used to the change. Change – What an important role this word plays in our lives. People who are afraid of change in this ever-changing world get left behind with an awful feeling. It undoubtedly is challenging to cope up with a variance, primarily when it is outside our comfort zone.

The Crisis

Teck loses his job and finds it very hard to hide that fact to his wife and looks out for another job that could get him his lost salary back. The boy is devasted to find a maid who now gets to sit and sleep along with him in his room. While Hwee Leng seems to be the only person relaxed with the new setting, Teresa slowly absorbs the role of servant and begins to serve the family. There are numerous glares, silences, breaks (both physical and mental) between the boy and the maid that establish the hatred. As Teresa accepts to be a slave (servant, pardon) to the family, she threatens the boy at times to show her hidden true self.

Ilo ilo movie
The boy tries his luck with the lottery to retain the maid

There is a beautiful scene in the movie where the boy tries to frame his maid with a planned theft attack in a supermarket. Later, when enquired by Hwee Leng on why she was late, she blames her poor memory of the street map as the reason for the delay. Then she confronts Jiale and warns him that she is employed by her mother to be a maid and not to be bullied. At that juncture, I felt the real face of Teresa masked beneath her maid skin. She made me ponder on what extents people can act to secure their jobs and in the process, lose their true identity. Crisis or no crisis, certain things tend to remain the same universally, thanks to the division of labour. The fear of losing a job (or life??) peaks on our spines during difficult times and kills our true self. And we pretend to be rational and perform our rituals dedicatedly.

Gradually, Jiale understands the tender side of Teresa and starts to erase the sharp boundary between them. Teresa turns out to be the mom the boy had yearned in his life. She becomes a sister he had longed for. And therefore the boy comes to terms with the maid and grows friendlier towards her. Meanwhile, his mother begins to envy their bond mentally. She finds it difficult to digest the fact that her son is getting along much better with a stranger than he has ever been with her. There is a scene where her concern gets explicitly exposed. On one lovely Sunday, her son accuses her of not cooking as well as their maid and her hidden anxieties burst out as she throws all the prepared food into the sink and asks her son to wait for the maid to arrive and then eat. Teresa also looks out for a job to do on her Sundays to earn the extra money she needs to save for her child.

Things fall apart

Teck in the meantime joins as a night watchmen in a store and acts so hard to make him look occupied in the days to convince his wife. One day he loses his job owing to his carelessness that leads to the damage of the company’s goods. He is devastated. Things then begin to fall apart for Hwee Leng when she could no longer understand her husband’s activities and her failure as a mother. She goes to a meeting conducted by someone who claims to solve people’s mysteries and worse, she falls prey to him and pays a significant amount to join his regular lectures. It is too late when she finds out that she had been cheated and the man in question was a fraud.

Ilo ilo Movie
The scene where the boy plucks a piece of hair of the maid to his mother’s surprise

I found this particular encounter out of line and unnecessary even though it managed to convey the actual pains of Leng. Finally, Leng breaks apart, and the tears that find their way out of her eyes contained years of hidden pain. Teck, lost himself, tries to console her in vain. When she controls her emotions, Teck tells her the truth about his job and reveals that he has lost a big chunk of his savings in stocks due to the ongoing crisis. As Teresa and Jiale bond along, Leng and Teck decide to ask the maid to return as they cannot afford a mid with their current situation. The boy is overwhelmed. Teresa gets crushed on knowing that she is going to lose her job. Should I call it fate? I’ll leave it to you to munch on.

As the family takes Teresa to the airport, the boy holds her arms firmly. Leng shouts at him and makes him leave her. Teresa smiles at Jiale and advises him that he is now a grown-up and that he must learn to take care of himself. As she gets down from the car, Jiale cuts a piece of her hair using his scissors. While Teresa moans in pain, his mother stares and warns Jiale to behave. As Teresa slowly disappears into the airport uncertain of her future, the boy smells the hair and finally lets down his tears. Of course, his parents could not understand why the boy behaved badly when Teresa was leaving, but he now has a part of Teresa and her smell with him to retain her memory in his life.

The baby dog

Just like how a baby dog goes towards the owner’s boot the first time it is brought to its new home. It relives pleasant memories with its brothers and sisters through the smell of the mud from its place clinging in the boots. It reminisces about a life it could never live from now on and prepares itself for what lies ahead. I was incredibly moved when I suddenly related the boy with the dog. The boy, like the dog, is now lost. His glimmer of hope to taste his love is lost. His parents are uncertain of what lies ahead in their lives. Teresa is unsure of what she is to do for herself and her child.

Ilo ilo movie
A heart warming moment of the film when the boy finally lets his tears out after smelling the hair and realizing that he has now lost his pseudo mother


Thus, this cannes film ends with a big question (well. many actually) on every character’s mind. It made me think a lot about how the characters might try to work on their situations, let alone get out of them. The mere existence of them is now under question. However, the hope of a better tomorrow keeps them ticking and going despite the fear of cloudiness. They smile and look forward to finding ways to face the present challenge only to unveil a dominoes of challenges idling ahead. Just like everyone else trying to make a living on this planet. Hope, as they say, is the last resort. ‘Ilo Ilo’ is one among the well executed Singapore movies of recent times.

‘Ilo Ilo’ only reminds me of a quote I read somewhere –

Hope is the only feeling stronger than fear

Ilo Ilo movie poster
  • Title – Ilo Ilo
  • Country Singapore
  • Year – 2013
  • Director – Anthony Chen
  • Awards – Golden Camera – Cannes & More

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