Opens Fri., April 11 at Varsity. Not rated. 99 minutes.
Nearly 10, Jiale is a nightmare of an only child: selfish, spoiled, ungrateful. His mother, a Singapore office clerk, is pregnant with baby number two, which may explain Jiale’s acting-out at home and school. His father is in sales until he’s not. It’s 1997, and Asia is plunging into economic crisis, which matters not a whit to Jiale, an obsessive student of lottery numbers, until his busy parents hire a Filipina live-in maid to care for the household and him. Suddenly there’s a new focus for this petulant boy (Koh Jia Ler): his vehement opposition to “Auntie Terry” (Angeli Bayani).
Anthony Chen’s worthwhile drama (his debut) makes Jiale neither unbearably horrid or, when patient Teresa finally wins him over, unbearably cute. He’s just another self-absorbed kid who can’t understand how the globalized economy is making pawns not just of Teresa but his parents, too. The script is based on Chen’s own experience with a Filipina nanny, and we see how an ethnic and religious outsider is gradually drawn into the intimate rituals of a Chinese home. (Dad wanders around obliviously in his tighty-whities until Teresa giggles.) The Lim family and their servant communicate in English (with subtitles), and this peculiar mixing of cultures points to Chen’s larger point—the economic interdependency of Asia, with its close proximity of cheap labor and wealthy cities. Even as we watch the Lims slipping out of their middle-class bubble, we also learn from Teresa’s pay-phone calls that she has family back home. She works abroad and surrenders her passport because she must; and Jiale’s father is soon also forced beneath his station.
That Ilo Ilo—a childish transliteration of Iloilo province in the Philippines—is set 10 years before the global financial crisis gives it a small, sad, prophetic power. Think of all the Mexican migrants ebbing across our border, the Eastern Europeans doing menial work in the West, the desperate Africans drowning in the Mediterranean. Teresa is a member of the same bottomless sea of unskilled workers that sloshes around the planet.