For most people, winning the Camera d’Or at Cannes and taking three awards at this year’s Golden Horse Awards would be an exhilarating experience. For Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen (陳哲藝) — who has done just that with Ilo Ilo (爸媽不在家) — it’s been a source of stress.
“I am in a place where I feel very uncomfortable,” the 29-year-old filmmaker told the Taipei Times on Monday.
“I haven’t made a film for some time … and I’m afraid that I might not know how to make a good film again,” he said.
He probably doesn’t have much to worry about. Ilo Ilo marks the first time that the Golden Horse’s top award has been given to a Singaporean film. Chen took top honors in the Best Feature, Best Screenplay and Best New Director categories.
Named after a province in the Philippines and set in Singapore at the beginning of the Asian Financial Crisis, Ilo Ilo depicts the bond between a young boy and a Filipino domestic helper hired by his parents. At first the boy is cruel to his maid, an all too common occurrence in places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Over the course of the film, however, the boy learns to sympathize with the woman, and they eventually develop a close friendship.
Chen’s first feature film is notable for its strong characterization and solid themes — something that Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (李安) said in recent comments is notably lacking in the majority of Taiwan’s movies. Lee said that locally-produced films tend to be narrow in scope, with themes and characters that are poorly developed.
And though many are critical of Taiwan’s movies, Chen said a certain style of Taiwanese film helped kick start his career.
“Taiwan’s new wave cinema was a big influence during my formative years as a filmmaker. This is evident in my film, where a certain sensibility, a certain perspective or values [reveal] my concerns for humanity, society and the human condition,” he said.
The scenes in Ilo Ilo are truthful portrayals of ordinary people — the essence of Taiwan’s new wave cinema led by directors such as Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢), Edward Yang (楊德昌) and the early works of Ang Lee.
Chen is no stranger to Taiwan’s film circles. Over the past 10 years, he has interned at the Central Motion Picture Corporation (中影) and helped coordinate several editions of the Asia Pacific Film Festival. Before he finished Ilo Ilo, he applied to and was accepted into the Golden Horse Film Academy (金馬學院).
“Director Hou Hsiao-hsien is such an important figure for me. The academy is run by him and I needed to go. This was my last chance,” Chen said. The academy only receives applicants who have not already made a feature film.
Chen wrote, directed and produced Ilo Ilo. Although he had co-producers, Chen said he had to go out and buy props and costumes himself after long hours of shooting.
“I hope to not be in that position again. [Producing] is very painful. Ilo Ilo is the independent film of independent films. You can’t get more guerrilla than that,” he said.
Due to Singapore’s profit-driven environment, there were very few people who showed interest in producing Ilo Ilo, because it’s “not commercial enough,” Chen said.
Despite the “painful” process, Chen pulled through. “I desperately wanted to make my first film. I think I would have done anything to get it made,” he said.
Chen has recently made London his home, where he is exposed to creative talent from around the world.