Jiale and Teresa in "Ilo Ilo." Photo courtesy of Fisheye Pictures.

Jiale and Teresa in “Ilo Ilo.” Photo courtesy of Fisheye Pictures.

The most outwardly “normal” lives can sometimes provide the finest dramatic material. Characters with impossibly lofty morals or blindingly effulgent personalities are often brimming with pretense — and it’s difficult to care about them because you can’t identify with them.

Ilo Ilo is about normal people.

It peers into the lives of an increasingly despondent Singaporean family and their new Filipino maid, Teresa (Angeli Bayani), at the height of the Asian financial crisis in 1997. The constant oscillations of family life are on display — the fights, reconciliations, and, of course, moments of unmistakable love. At the same time, the film is about something that may be less familiar to many audiences, especially in America: the impermanent addition of a family member.

It’s difficult to believe that Ilo Ilo is director Anthony Chen’s first feature. The film is very personal for him (his family had a maid until he was 12 years old, and she was from a province called Iloilo in the Philippines) and it’s probably for this reason that he furnishes each character with a deep, dynamic personality. The attention to detail is extraordinary, and the whole presentation is poignantly believable.

What’s “poignant” about it? The film centers on the doomed friendship between 11-year-old Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) and Teresa. Although such a connection may seem like a mere by-product of hiring live-in help, it certainly isn’t so for the children who grow to rely on their new “surrogate” parents for much more than chores and errands. As Chen notes, “What is intriguing and never brought to light is the emotional inter-relations created, nurtured, cherished, and yet brutally taken away when circumstances change.”

Like the film demonstrates so carefully, few things in life can more relentlessly and unfairly brutalize people than poverty. Jiale’s parents didn’t mean to bring Teresa into his life only to snatch her away, but their desperate situation left them no option. For families like Jiale’s, maids aren’t luxuries — they’re necessary to manage domestic affairs while mom and pop (Yeo Yann Yann and Chen Tianwen, respectively) work mind-gelatinizing hours at dead-end jobs.

The most extraordinary thing about Ilo Ilo is the way in which it makes one feel constant pangs of empathy for thoroughly flawed characters. Hwee Leng (affectionately referred to as “mama” or “ma’am” throughout the film, even by her husband), for example, is domineering and insensitive. On Teresa’s first day, mama creepily demands her passport. She frequently treats the new maid scornfully and without respect — she tells her to wear her old clothes (and later chastises her for doing so), orders her to sit outside at a family function and blames her for mishaps that are never her fault, such as when Jiale breaks his arm while riding his bike.

But mama’s life is colorless and harsh, and given her circumstances one can’t exactly expect a cheerful, bootstrap-pulling attitude. At work, she’s forced to sit passively while a slew of co-workers trudge out the door — each for the last time. At home, her son has taken to calling Teresa “Auntie” and seems to value his mother’s care and attention less and less — and there’s nothing she can do, because less work simply isn’t an option. Her husband seems to be in an irrevocable spiral of debt, joblessness, and…cigarettes (which wouldn’t be such a big deal, but he promised to give them up after they got married — he also has a master-slave relationship with booze). Oh, and she’s pregnant.

When mama is eventually bamboozled by a sordid get-rich-quick scheme, a news report about it comes on the television. Her husband absently says, “Only stupid people would fall for something like that.” When mama replies, “That’s how stupid I am” and collapses in tears, you’ll feel nothing but sympathy for her. She isn’t stupid or cruel — just dangerously close to hopeless.

Father (the only name he’s given in the credits as well as the film itself) is having a comparably rough time. After getting fired from his job at a glass factory, he descends through layer upon layer of indignity. He works for a time as a security guard, but a mishap gets him the boot there, too. He scraps the car, smokes like a Singaporean factory, loses around $80,000 on stocks and can’t fish a word of encouragement out of his wife. Two of his scenes are particularly affecting. Early in the film, he stomps out of his office for the last time, throws his briefcase against the ground, and smashes his glass samples — it’s an intensely energetic sequence, and it ends hilariously (he discards his company ID with big, loud “fuck”). Near the end, he drops the little family car off at the scrap yard and as he leaves, a similar car is crumpled into the ground behind him.

Engaging as these characters are, everything in the film gravitates around Jiale and Teresa. Jiale is a tempestuous nightmare half the time; precocious and big-hearted the other half. In the very first scene, he lies about being physically abused by the school principal, bites the poor guy, and snatches his confiscated toy off the desk. And he constantly contrives ways to make Teresa’s life even more agonizing. A quick sample: he frames her for shoplifting, sneaks out of school when she’s supposed to pick him up, runs away from her and gets struck by a car (the parents find a way to blame her for this), hides cigarettes under her bed, and endlessly treats her with puerile disdain. She weathers all of this with remarkable patience and fairness. For these reasons, she’s the one character who seems almost unreal.

But it’s her slow-growing rapport with Jiale that serves as the engine of the narrative. Constant exposure to Teresa eventually softens Jiale’s attitude, and the two grow visibly fond of one another. It may be bad news for mama, but they have an important relationship — one can’t see mama being playful with Jiale in the same way or lecturing him about morality atop the roof of a building they were exploring together. From the look of it, most of Jiale’s friends are fiercely unpleasant little brutes, so contact with a tranquil, kind personality like Teresa’s will probably prove to be powerfully formative. Put simply, she’s a stalwart friend and a strong female presence when he so clearly needs both. And this goes both ways: it’s deeply gratifying for her to be given the familial title “Auntie” and to be a cherished influence for Jiale.

And therein lies the tragedy. Nothing is permanent in Ilo Ilo. The specter of poverty and despair hovers over everything the family does, and it forces them to make increasingly difficult decisions — including a major one about Teresa.

Near the beginning, as Teresa is hanging clothes up to dry, the rack falls from the ledge to the pavement below. Minutes later, after she runs down to retrieve everything, something else falls from the top of an adjacent building and lands with a sickening thud. It’s a person, whose life is extinguished upon impact. This is what Teresa was talking about with Jiale on the rooftop — the devastating weight of suicide (he’d made a callow joke about people choosing to jump from that particular spot because of the view).

For the next few days, the funeral ceremonies keep people up at night — an uninterrupted reminder that their situation, too, is dire…but also that they’ve so far survived it. And from the look of it, this won’t change. Jiale’s plucky family will, by all indications, endure.

3.5 out of 4 stars

Video courtesy of Fisheye Pictures.