ilo-iloHaving been quite the hit on the festival circuit – picking up the Golden Camera award at Cannes last year, not to mention several other accolades in various cities across the world (London included), Anthony Chen’s debut feature film Ilo Ilo certainly has a lot to live up to in that regard – and this compelling study of friendship does little to disappoint.

Set in Singapore, in the latter end of the 1990s amidst the recession that sweeps over the region, we delve into the life of a family struggling to cope. The mother, Hwee Leng (Yann Yann Yeo) is heavily pregnant, and while her husband (Tian Wen Chen) has severe financial woes, they hire the Filipino nanny Teresa (Angeli Bayani) to come and look after their insubordinate son, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler). Though initially the troubled young boy bullies and intimidates his new carer, soon the pair strike up a strong bond, igniting Hwee Leng’s jealousy.

This film truly comes into its element in the leading performances by Koh Jia Ler and Bayani, especially remarkable in regards to the former, as the young boy plays a layered role while displaying so much subtlety. Jiale is extremely volatile and at times so unmanageable, and yet he maintains a level of empathy throughout, and it’s a credit to the actor that this be the case. Chen is very careful is reminding us that he’s just a child too, and he does so with minimum contrivance. Though at times his violent, reckless actions seem almost reprehensible, we then proceed to witness him climbing into his parent’s bed at night, seeking some affection, while in the meantime his broken arm is symbolic of his distinct vulnerability.

Bayani matches him at every turn though, and to fully believe in their relationship, both performances need to be of a similarly high standard. Their bond is believable, and though he initially seeks in making her life a living hell, perhaps as they are both outcasts of sorts, thanks to his behavioural issues and her ethnicity, they find solace in one another’s company. She eventually becomes maternal with him, and soon we appreciate that while he seems to have the upper hand at times, she’s always in authority.

It’s this nuanced, multilayered relationship that this film hinges on, and it’s so intriguing to explore, especially against such strained, uncertain surroundings, in a family – and ultimately, society – that’s going through a turbulent time. This marks a truly exceptional debut for Chen and with his ability to be so understated and to merely peer into one family dynamic and study the characters within with such guile, it’s a rather encouraging sign as to what this talented filmmaker may conjure up next.