Ilo Ilo – Movie – Review

Ilo Ilo Poster

Story of a family during financial crisis


Set in Singapore during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Ilo Ilo chronicles the day-to-day drama of the Lim family – troublesome grade-schooler Jiale and his overstressed parents, Heck and Leng. Comfortably middle class and with another baby on the way, they hire Teresa, a Filipino immigrant, as a live-in house-help and nanny. An outsider in both the family and Singapore itself, Teresa initially struggles to manage Jiale’s antics and find her footing in her new community. The two eventually form a unique bond, but just as Teresa becomes an unspoken part of the family, unforeseen circumstances in an uncertain economy will challenge the new normal yet again…

Native and/or alternate titles: 爸妈不在家, Ba ma bu zai jia, Dad and Mom Are Not Home
Year: 2013
Country: Singapore
Languages: Mandarin, English, Filipino/Tagalog
Genre: Drama
Director: Anthony Chen
Writer: Anthony Chen
Cast: Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Yann Yann Yeo, Tian Wen Chen


The winner of the prestigious Canned Film Festival award among others, this movie about the mundane everyday life of a middle-class family is truly a breath of fresh air. Ilo Ilo is a glorious endeavour bringing together the best of both worlds of commercial films and art films. A well-balanced piece which can appease all sets of audiences.

On a personal note, this movie appealed to me because of its simplistic and lovely story about the friendship of a young boy with the house-help working in his house. The newly appointed Filipino house-help, Teresa, wins over the heart and confidence of the young boy, Jiale, through her deeply maternal personality.

Loneliness - Koh Jia Ler - Ilo Ilo

When you first see Jiale, he seems like a spoilt brat, simply a delinquent who is always up to no good. But on a closer look, one can find a young boy on the verge of adolescence who is simply acting up to get some attention and affection from his always busy parents, who through no fault of their own, invested in work to make ends meet. Teresa is the knight in shining armour here for our lost little boy. She understands the boy and makes up for the affection his parents are not in a position to provide for him. They had a rocky start to their friendship but slowly but surely grow very fond of each other. Teresa is able to be there for the boy when his parents cannot.

The movie also relays how outside forces can change the family dynamic. Jiale’s father, a salesman in an uncertain economy, ends up being a victim of layoffs during that time of the Asian recession. To make things worse, he even loses money in the stock market and ends up burdening a heavy guilt and remorse for failing his duties as a father and a husband. On the other hand, Hwee Leng was forced to keep working well into her last stages of pregnancy in order to keep the household running. She tried hard to keep the family together but the circumstances kept going against her. She felt the stabbing pain of becoming more and more distant from her son and at times jealousy consumed her heart when she saw how close her son was getting to Teresa, the house-help. With the constant downs and barely any ups, the parents struggle to support their family and their lifestyle.

Koh Jia Ler - Angeli Bayani - Ilo Ilo
Finally some company – Jiale and Teresa

Yeo Yann Yann, the actress for the Mother – Hwee Leng, gives a brilliant performance in portraying the role of the mother consumed were grief and struck with jealousy at not being able to perform her duties as a mother and at the same time trying to deal with the effects of retrenchments due to the Asian recession affecting their lives. Angeli Bayani, who plays the role of Teresa/Terry the house-help, nails her role through her soulful acting as a dutiful servant with a motherly constitution. Jia Ler Koh also deserves kudos for his realistic portrayal of the character of Jiale. The chemistry and harmony between the two actors of Jiale and Teresa are the highlights.

On top of the great acting and heart-warming story, the wonderful directing and cinematography were the cherry on top. The most minute details were taken into consideration to make the audience feel as if we had truly travelled back to the 90s itself and felt the times first-hand. I have already talked about the simplicity of the story flow is a plus point but this combined with the expressive effortless narration made this movie a grand success in my eyes. The character build-up might be slow for some viewers but the stories of the characters have been beautifully brought forward to show their perspectives, challenges and troubles which make the audience feel even more attached to them.

A Happy Family - Ilo Ilo
A Happy Middle-class Family

Ilo Ilo has a very realistic aspect with naturalistic performances making everything more surreal. It didn’t feel like I was watching a film but it was as if I was seeing it in real life and experiencing the emotions on a personal level as well.

This down-to-earth genuine heart-touching drama is a definite must for every cinephile. You will invariably fall in love with this movie.

  • Acting/cast: 8
  • Story: 8
  • Music/Sound: 7
  • Overall: 8

Have you seen ‘Ilo Ilo’? If yes, what do you think about this movie? If not, does it sound interesting to you? Comment below!

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About Mit

A proud introvert with a love for the big and small screen world. Have an obsession with the world of Asian Cinema. Welcome inside my Asian plagued mind.

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