Ilo Ilo is set in 1997 Singapore. Teck and Hwee Leng are comfortably middle class with one son, Jiale, and another baby on the way. Jiale is constantly getting into altercations at school, embarrassing his parents - mostly his mother. Mom is working lots of hours and decides they need someone to help with the housework - and Jiale. They hire Teresa - a Filipino.
There is no great plot twist to Ilo Ilo, rather it is the documentation and exploration of a small group of people whose lives intersect for a window of time. Teresa is not accepted by Jiale in the beginning - he treats her quite cruelly and maliciously. Mom takes her passport for safekeeping'. Dad is quite distant - he is keeping his job loss a secret from his wife. I found the family's treatment of Teresa quite depressing, although I realize it is reality based. As the economy worsens, tensions grow higher in the family. Jiale and Teresa's relationship changes, much to the consternation of his harried mother.
The standout actor for me was Teresa. She too has personal issues that we only learn of through the phone calls she places home. The 'secret' world of the 'domestic help' is where we see Teresa smile, instead of the robotic yes ma'am, no ma'am blank face she adopts with the family. But I want to add that each actor was excellent.
It was only on reading the director's notes that I discovered the origin of the title - and the basis of the film. Ilo Ilo is Philippine province that Cheng's own nanny/maid was from. I wonder how much of Jiale's role and antics stem from Cheng's childhood.
Ilo Ilo has small moments of joy and happiness, but I found the majority of it quite sad - each character is struggling. I was thinking about it at the end and I don't recall Mr. or Mrs. Lim smiling in the film at all.
I enjoyed the look at life in Singapore. Although 'nothing happens' in Ilo Ilo, I was quite engaged from start to finish, wondering where these character's lives were going.
As always, there's a short included with the film. It's a short animated film called Blik, about a young boy who is enamoured of his older neighbour. Quite amazing animation but the lack of faces bothered me a bit.
Singapore / 2013 / Mandarin, Tagalog & English with English subtitles / 99 min