Ilo Ilo (2013)

Release Date: 19 May 2013

Directed by: Anthony Chen

Country: Singapore

Ilo Ilo is a movie about a boy who is neglected by his parents as they’re both busy with work, and hence this mother hires a maid to look after him and help out with the household chores.

Jiale Parents
Jia Le’s mother, Hwee Leng (left) and father, Teck (right)

The film opens during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, when the country is going through recession, hence we see the stress JiaLe’s parents are going through as they struggle to keep their jobs.

At the beginning of the film, JiaLe rebels against the idea of having a maid as it was akin to having a stranger in the house. He even comes up with all sorts of pranks hoping to get the maid to quit or give up. But alas, one day JiaLe takes a fall (cause he was being unneccesarily stubborn) and now has to rely on Terry (his domestic helper) to help him shower. This event turns their relationship around and they started getting closer and JiaLe gets more attached to her. Of course, Mummy Lim notices this and starts displaying signs of jealousy.

Terry helping JiaLe shower
Terry helping Jia Le shower

The movie seemed to be centred around foreign workers rights, dealing with the issue of the humane treatment of domestic helpers. While Jia Le treats Terry as part of the family, you can see that Hwee Leng does not. For example, when the Lims were invited to a family dinner, Teck apologises to Terry there were not enough seats for her at the table to dine with everyone else. Hwee Leng actually chides Teck saying “why are you apologising”. Another instance was when Hwee Leng asks Terry to choose a cup for herself but ends up making the choice for her anyway simply because “plastic won’t break”.

The movie also reflects the somewhat unhealthy work-life balance Singaporeans have. The government wants Singaporeans to have more kids but at the same time, the cost of living is so high. On top of that, parents are also unable to spend enough time with their children even if they have them.

I think the part of the movie that hit home was when Jia Le saw a photo of Terry’s baby and asked how could she leave her baby and go overseas to work, to which she replies “then why did your mother get a stranger look after her son”. I believe this is a scenario many of us are familiar with. I myself grew up with my grandmother, she was the one who raised me and took care of me while my parents were away at work and hence I’m extremely attached to her.

Overall the movie was actually pretty good for a Singaporean film. I actually enjoyed it more than I expect I would have. Hopefully Singapore will produce better films in future.

Verdict: Treat yo maid well. Understand thy mother.



3 Comments Add yours

  1. DAWN TAY says:

    I personally really enjoyed this movie as well, coming from a film student. It was a thrilling moment for me when I found out it won the Camera d’Or award in Cannes, something that we have not achieved before. I agree with you that the movie represents the economic pressures Singaporeans had at that time. However, the problem still runs through now, many Singapore households still hire a foreign maid as their servant. I too, was raised not by my actual mother but a mother figure, my Indonesian helper. Ilo Ilo serves as a reminder that all too often the portrayal of foreign domestic helpers are erased of an identity. Ilo Ilo creates one through Terry, an independent and feisty Indonesian worker. The impact she had on Jiale was tremendous as she helps him learn to care for others that are not like him, as iterated with the baby chicks that were so cruelly stolen from him. With the breakthrough film Ilo Ilo, lets hope for better local films aside from the cringey Jack Neo productions.


  2. yitingwee says:

    I really liked the short discussion you did with regards to foreign workers’ rights in Singapore. It is unfortunate but true that the treatment of domestic workers can be worked on in our country. Like how it is portrayed in Iloilo, the child that interacts the most with the helper may form a bond of sorts but the ones who don’t actually interact with the helper as much (Hwee Leng) holds some form of animosity towards Terry. Iloilo is a movie that has very strong local flavors and through the local lens we see some societal problems with our country. This being filmed as a movie serves as a reminder for us to look deeper and empathies with our new foreign family member. Great review!


  3. Hi Yi Huai, this was a great review for a fantastic and iconic Singaporean movie. This movie was a favorite for me as it’s extremely relatable. I love the human-interest aspect of it, and it was an emotional rollercoaster. I especially loved the scene that you mentioned about the maid’s reply to Terry when asked how she could leave her kid behind to go overseas to work. I think it shows that though domestic helpers in Singapore might not be as ‘privileged’ as us, Singaporeans are also sacrificing time with their children due to the unhealthy-work life balance. Overall I agree that it was a fantastic movie!


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