I have been brought up by my grandmother until I was seven, and then by a slew of maids. Eng, from Perak, was the closest to me and my siblings. She was our first foreign maid, a Teochew woman who saw me through my turbulent teenage years and my parents’ divorce. So watching Ilo Ilo brought on an empathy I felt for Jia Le, with his close relationship with his Filipina maid. When I became a working mother myself, I was adamant to do as much mothering as possible. I had no maid, with sons in childcare. I was the one who bathed and put them to bed nightly until the time they were in primary school, when they stayed at my mother’s house and like Jia Le, were looked after by Indonesian and Filipina maids.
This movie is set in 1997 during the financial crisis. Companies are going through retrenchment, and Koh Jia Le (his real name and the name used in the movie), a ten-year-old boy is a latchkey child until his heavily pregnant mother decides to hire a Filipina maid to help around the house. They were like majority of middle-income Singaporeans, living in public HDB housing, with both parents working and employing a maid to babysit and for housework. Terry comes from Ilo Ilo, a province in the Philippines, leaving behind her eighteen-month- old son and a drunkard husband to come to Singapore.
The movie takes a hard look at something very ordinary and mostly taken for granted by Singaporeans, which become glaring when put into focus.
A Singaporean family admits a stranger into the house, forgoing all privacy – father walks around in underwear, conflict in the marriage, etc, are all exposed to this stranger. The maid, in return, has to share a room in the boy’s room, with the boy barging in and catching her half-naked when she was changing. Her employer sees nothing wrong as she goes through her maid’s private belongings.
After a day’s off, the maid Terry returns home in the night to a pile of ironing to be completed that night, much to my sympathy. (Something I see often in my mother’s house. Days off for maid means marketing in the morning, clearing up all the produce before the maid Nita can go off. And then coming home in the night, sometimes to unwashed plates or various tasks.)
When things in the home goes wrong, the first suspect is the maid. In the movie, Mother finds cigarettes in the toilet bowl left by her son and immediately suspects the maid of smoking. (In real life, when the sinks get choked, my mother, as well as my neighbor, immediately suspect the maids for throwing rubbish into the drain pipe, and I had to explain to both that oils from dish washing can actually clog up the pipes like how our arteries are choked by fats, then proceeds to teach them how to unchoke the pipes.)
Like me, Singaporeans did not take notice of the film, not even after it won the prestigious Cannes film award, until after the film won a few Golden Horse awards. Award winning films are mostly slow-moving(and it’s true for this film as well), with no actions and much dialogues. I don’t mind dialogues and dramas but really, what would there be in the film that I have not already seen in my everyday life. There is nothing new, and no heart tugging scenes, or a feel good ending that endears the film to me.
Yes, the film does show some ugly sides of Singaporeans and may make a few uncomfortable (if they are honest enough to see themselves in the film). What we view as a compassionate act of passing our old clothes to the maid, is really a way of getting rid of clutter. When my maid Yati decides to return home to get married after seven years with us, my mother cannot fathom why Yati would want to leave our comfortable home with proper sanitation to return to her village. My mother couldn’t see that in our comfortable home, Yati was just a maid, at her every back and call, but in Yati’s home in the village, no matter how poor, Yati may be a princess in her mother’s eyes. (Yati is back as a maid, not in Singapore but in Hong Kong).
Like what journalist Rohit Brijnath asked in today’s Sunday Times, Are we compassionate enough (towards our treatment of foreign workers)? He said, ‘Yet in a city where workers are often second-class people and many maids are simply objects of use…’
So perhaps more Singaporeans should go see the film, not for the awards or any artistic merits the film deserves, but for a reflection on the ordinary lives we lead with our domestic helpers.