Child of the 90s: Anthony Chen on Ilo Ilo

Winner of the BFI London Film Festival’s Sutherland Award for Best First Feature, London-based filmmaker Anthony Chen tells us about recreating his own childhood in Singapore for the family drama Ilo Ilo.

Chris Fennell

Ilo Ilo (2013)

Ilo Ilo (2013)

Awarded both the Camera d’or at Cannes and the Sutherland Award for best first feature at the BFI London Film Festival, National Film and Television School graduate Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo is a subtle but devastating study of an affluent family living in Singapore during a financial downturn in 1997. Working couple Hwee Leng and Teck decide to employ a maid, Teresa, to look after the upkeep of their home and care for their wayward son, Jiale. When she arrives from the Philippines, where she’s left her own son in order to earn enough money for his upkeep, Jiale begins to play up and we begin to learn some uncomfortable truths about the family.

You capture the 1990s so evocatively in your film. What made you want to go back to this period?

Ilo Ilo (2013)

Ilo Ilo (2013)

I think it was a very natural decision. I was born in the 80s so spent much of my childhood in the 90s. I wanted to make a very sincere and honest film about my childhood, as well as an authentic version of that period. So, in terms of the cinematography and the art direction, it wasn’t about a stylised set or showing what I could do with the camera – I wanted something which was very genuine.

I was very particular about the hair, the fabric, colour; it was how I imagined and remembered the past. I was very adamant about fabrics and textures and it was about getting it right. It wasn’t about romanticising or creating a nostalgic version of the past.

Koh Jia Ler – who plays the young boy, Jiale – gives a very naturalistic performance. How did you find him?

I spent a long time casting. We went to 21 schools, saw 8,000 children, auditioned 2,000 formally, then I ran a workshop for 150 of them at weekends. It was a very gruelling process trying to nail down the right kid. I wasn’t interested in casting an actor or a star. It was about creating a family, something genuine – finding a real father, a real mother and a real kid.

Apart from the kid, all of them are actors. I wanted to strip away their stardom. It was very much not about getting the performances completely right but about creating a real sense of family. In fact, I think even now, the boy is still calling them mummy and daddy!

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