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Ilo Ilo DVD Review

Tanta Agua DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Ilo Ilo

US Theatrical Release: April 4, 2014 (Singapore: August 29, 2013) / Running Time: 99 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Writer/Director: Anthony Chen

Cast: Yeo Yann Yann (Mrs. Lim Hwee Leng/Mother), Chen Tianwen (Teck/Father), Angeli Bayani ("Auntie Terry"/Teresa), Koh Jia Ler (Jiale), Peter Wee (Discipline Master), Jo Kukathas (School Principal), Naomi Toh (English Teacher Mrs. Ong), Delwin Neo (Fat Boy), Grace Jean Cruz (Maid Next Door), Jo Kwek (Mother's Colleague Lisa), Gim Goh (Jimmy Goh), Pamela Wildheart (Salon Owner), Judee Beniola (Hairdresser), Donovon Lee (IT Manager), Michael Chua (Subordinate), Michael Foong (Job Interviewer), Elvin Leong (Provision Shop Owner), Yeo Siew Khim (Grandmother)

1.85.1 Anamorphic Widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Stereo 2.0 (Mandarin with English and Tagalog)
Subtitles: English / Closed Captioned / Extra Subtitled in English
DVD General Retail Release Date: September 16, 2014 (Film-of-the-Month Club Debut: February 1, 2014)
Suggested Retail Price: $24.95 / Clear Keepcase / Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Also available on Amazon Instant Video

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Ilo Ilo tells the story of a Singaporean family in the late 1990s. Ten-year-old boy Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) is something of a troublemaker
at school and at home. Both of his parents work full time and the urban apartment dwellers are well off enough to hire a live-in maid for their son. They get Terry (Angeli Bayani), a 28-year-old Filipino woman whom Jiale resists thoroughly. The boy sets up his new guardian to be caught shoplifting, ditches her when she shows up to pick him up after school, and ignores her directions in general. Jiale gets hit by a taxi while storming off on his bike rather than do his homework as instructed by Terry. He breaks his arm.

Eventually, Jiale has a change of heart towards "Auntie" Terry. He comes to prefer her cooking and company, creating some envy and resentment in his pregnant mother (Yann Yann Yeo). Though kept more than busy as maid, Terry picks up a low-paying second job at a hair salon. Moonlighting is apparently illegal, but Jiale keeps it hidden.

At his grandmother's birthday party, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) sneaks some shark fin soup for his now beloved "Auntie" Terry (Angeli Bayani).

She's not the only one in the household with secrets. Dad (Chen Tianwen) has lost his job selling new "unbreakable" tempered glass. He's out of work for months and then underemployed as a security guard and night watchman before informing his wife. He has to come clean sooner about his stealthy smoking habit, after Terry nearly loses her job over a cigarette butt found in the toilet.

Ilo Ilo is kind of episodic and understated. Feeling guilty for throwing the kid's Tamagotchi out the car window, Dad buys Jiale some baby chicks for his birthday, which grow up and mostly become dinner. Jiale continues to get in trouble at school, nearly getting expelled and then enduring corporal punishment at an assembly for pushing a classmate who insults Terry. Mom is scammed by a motivational speaker whose arrest she later sees on the news.

Jiale's mother (Yann Yann Yeo) is not thrilled to see the boy preferring his maid to her. Jiale's father (Chen Tianwen) keeps his smoking secret, along with his stock market failure and his current unemployment.

The feature debut of writer-director Anthony Chen, Ilo Ilo offers a compelling slice of family life. It's slightly overlong, but suitably personal and involving. You suspect that Singapore native Chen, who would have been a young teenager in the late-'90s, is drawing from his own experiences. The storytelling is too realistic, interesting, and full of nice detail (even if the setting is entirely unfamiliar to you) to be pure invention.
An American viewer could easily miss that this is taking place at the end of the 20th century and may not even be aware of the recession dramatized.

Ilo Ilo was released to DVD last February as part of Film Movement's Film of the Month Club. It later played in a handful of US coastal theaters from early spring to mid-summer. This week, its DVD reached general retail, unchanged from its February release.


Ilo Ilo appears in its native 1.85:1 aspect ratio on DVD. Film Movement's presentations always seem to lack some of the detail and sharpness of bigger studios' standard definition transfers, perhaps as a reflection of the often limited budget of the foreign indie productions they choose to distribute. The picture quality is certainly fine, if unremarkable. That same description could be applied to the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which has to be chosen (a Dolby 2.0 stereo mix plays by default). The film unfolds chiefly in Mandarin, but some English and Tagalog exchanges also feature. The strong player-generated English subtitles even transcribe most of the English dialogue, though interestingly not always verbatim. Par for the studio, the presentation is very US viewer-friendly.

A slimmer and younger looking Yeo Yann Yann is excited to be presenting "Ilo Ilo" at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival in the behind-the-scenes featurette. Writer-director Anthony Chen has done enough in his first thirty years on earth to warrant a second page for his biography.


One non-standard extra is "Behind the Scenes of Ilo Ilo" (22:57), a solid making-of documentary. After opening at the film's world premiere at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, the piece proceeds to let writer-director Anthony Chen
speak at length about the personal experiences that inspired the movie (confirming our suspicions, he grew up having a Filipino nanny), the casting process, how he directs actors, and his history with Cannes, where the film won the Caméra d'Or (Golden Camera) award for first time filmmakers. We also get some looks at the film's production and hear from the leading cast members. The mix of languages spoken (including English) are all optionally subtitled in English.

A Bios and Trailers section holds 1-2 page biographies of the writer-director and four lead actors and Film Movement's Ilo Ilo trailer (2:01). The section also includes trailers for the company's other releases, adding previews of The Piano in a Factory, Off White Lies, and Be With Me to the disc-opening ones for 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, and Tanta Agua.

In Bastiaan Schravendeel's 2010 animated short "Blik", a faceless boy develops a crush on an older neighbor girl. Terry serves the family dinner on the DVD's animated main menu.

All Film Movement DVDs include a bonus short. This one's is Blik (8:34), a simply yet stylishly animated 2010 Dutch film populated by faceless characters sharing a single city block.
Written and directed by Bastiaan Schravendeel, it tells the story of a young boy who develops a crush on a slightly older neighbor girl who fixes his favorite toy car for him.

Film Movement's Film of the Month club is promoted by auto-played trailer and a page of text.

The menu sets clips to the end credits' Tagalog song with the usual listing bars over them.

The clear keepcase allows the inside of the cover art to display other Club staples: a paragraph explaining the film's selection and a few from director Anthony Chen discussing this film (which are slightly redundant if you've watched the making-of featurette.

Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) is excited for his maid to see his birthday gift of baby chicks in "Ilo Ilo."


Ilo Ilo gradually wins you over with its earnest tale of a 1990s Singapore family. Light on plot and heavy on characters and humanity, this little drama holds your interest and does not make you regret giving it your time. With its charming bonus short and informative standard features, the DVD is on par with other Film Movement discs, but slightly better on account of the making-of featurette's inclusion. It's worth a look.

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Reviewed September 19, 2014.

Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2014 Film Movement, Memento Films, Singapore Film Commission, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, and Fisheye Pictures.
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