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[InC-terview] Ilo Ilo Director Anthony Chen "thought of re-casting Yeo Yann Yann"?

By InCinemas  /  17 Jun 2013 (Monday)
For the past few weeks, you’ve been hearing his name, people talking about his film and his award that marked the first win at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

Anthony Chen, director of now award-winning film, Ilo Ilo talked to InCinemas about his thoughts on winning the coveted Camera d’Or prize for best feature film, and shared his hopes and expectations for Ilo Ilo in Singapore. Find out more after the jump!

About Ilo Ilo
Set in Singapore in the 1990s, Ilo Ilo chronicles the relationship between a young boy and his maid from Iloilo, a province in the Philippines. It is set against the backdrop of the Asian financial crisis of 1997. The movie stars actress Yeo Yann Yann, veteran actor Chen Tianwen, award-winning Filipino actress Angeli Bayani and newcomer Koh Jia Ler.

Jury president Agnes Varda shared her views as to why the jury selected Chen's film as the winner for the Camera d'Or Prize.

InCinemas: Congratulations Anthony, you made history being the first Singapore film to win an award in Cannes. What was going through your mind when you heard your name being announced for the Camera d’Or Prize?

Anthony: My head was spinning and I was just telling myself "don't make a fool of yourself on stage, thank all the right people".

InCinemas: Why did you choose to make a film about foreign domestic helpers working in Singapore?

Anthony: ILO ILO is very much inspired by my childhood - through vignettes and moments of the people close to me, particularly their mannerisms and words that have stuck in my head.

When I was young, we had a Filipino maid who was with us for 8 years. We called her Auntie Terry. Somehow or rather, she kept coming back into my memory these couple of years, and I realised that in Singapore, I am literally part of an entire generation of kids brought up by foreign helpers. That was the starting point for the film.

I knew that for my first feature I wanted to make a film that is more personal, and I wanted to make something honest and sincere. That was the basic motivation.

InCinemas: How did you gather this group of cast and were they your first choice of actors you had in mind?

Anthony: It was a grueling 10-month process. For the kid, we went to over 20 schools and saw over 8000 children, of which 2000 were auditioned and we eventually chose our kid after over 100 hours of workshops.

We did a short trip to the Philippines to meet a whole bunch of actresses for the role of the maid, some of whom have worked with notable directors such as Brillante Mendoza and Lav Diaz. Eventually I settled upon Angeli Bayani, there was a fragility in her size (she was rather small in height) and I thought her personal background was very useful for the character.

For the parents, I met almost every actor in the country that were in the right age group. I worked with the mother Yeo Yann Yann before in a short, and I casted her rather early in the process. I thought of re-casting her when she shocked me with the news that she was pregnant.

In fact, I thought long and hard about this and eventually re-wrote the entire script to accommodate a pregnant mother, which I feel added a new layer to the story. When we started filming, she was more than halfway through her pregnancy.

InCinemas: Why did you choose to debut your film at Cannes instead of Singapore?

Anthony: It wasn't an intentional choice. The film was ready just in time for the Cannes submission. And also, at that time, we haven't locked down a Singapore distributor.

InCinemas: What are your hopes for Ilo Ilo, in terms of box office sales?

Anthony: To be honest, my intention is to share the film with as many Singaporeans as possible, as the film is very much about our shared experiences and I'm confident many will see themselves in the film.

I'm don't want to give myself high hopes for box office, as this is my first feature and I have no real sense of the local box office conditions. But of course I hope that it will do well, because then it will mark a change for Singapore cinema. That a local film can both be a critical hit at festivals, can do well at the local box office and also have the potential for international sales - we have already sold 11 territories so far, including major ones such as US, UK, Australia, France, etc.

InCinemas: Ilo Ilo is no doubt the most anticipated local movie Singaporeans will be looking forward to this year. Do you feel pressured to ‘meet the standards’?

Anthony: I am not giving myself too much pressure. I think the entire cast and crew worked hard in making a sincere and honest film. That to me is what matters.

Though I have to say I am slightly worried about the high expectations that have been drummed up. I will urge Singaporeans to keep their mind open when seeing the film, it is a very different film from what one would usually expect from a Singapore film, but I feel strongly that locals will connect with the characters and scenarios in the film. 

InCinemas: The video of the 15mins standing ovation was a really touching scene and all the actors teared up too. What were some of the comments you heard from the audiences thereafter?

Anthony: Some said that it was a film that they could relate too, even though they do not live in Asia, but it reminded them of their Spanish and Portugese nannies when growing up.

Another audience member said she was surprised that the director is so young, she was expecting an older person that was 45 or 50, because there was very perceptive portrayal of motherhood and women in the film.

A lot of people said they were very moved by the film and one UK journalist who interviewed me the next day said, it was the most moving reception she had ever witnessed in her years of covering Cannes, especially rare for a film at the Directors' Fortnight.

InCinemas: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?

Anthony: Always maintain integrity in one's work. It is important to have a genuine passion for cinema. I do think too many young film directors are not so much in love with films, but in love with the idea of being a film director. So if you really love it, keep working on it and it will pay off.

InCinemas: What can we expect next from you?

Anthony: There are a few things bubbling in my head and I am developing a few projects in the UK and a film idea in Singapore. It is still early days and it will take some time before it matures into something more concrete. So tight-lipped for now…

Ilo Ilo is slated to release in Singapore 29 August 2013! Stay tuned to InCinemas for the latest updates of Ilo Ilo!

While we wait for the release in Singapore, watch the trailer for Ilo Ilo!

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