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“There is no room for God here,” claims one of the survivors of Singapore’s 1997 financial crisis in writer-director Anthony Chen’s promising debut film, “Ilo Ilo.”

Indeed, there’s not much room for a conventional family to breathe. Dad is an inept salesman and a secret smoker. Mom is a bit of a tyrant. Their 10-year-old son causes discipline problems at school. And their new maid makes desperate phone calls.

What they don’t need is more trouble, and they get it in spades. Dad loses his job and hides the fact from workaholic Mom. The maid and the son witness a suicide, and she nearly gets arrested for shoplifting.

But characters who may seem hopeless begin to suggest a vulnerable side, and none truly deserve the situations that afflict them. The boy is clearly motivated by the loss of a favorite grand­parent. The parents find themselves acting out passive-aggressive patterns.

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Koh Jia Ler is a standout as the rebel child, and Angeli Bayani, as the maid, subtly handles her growing understanding of him. Yeo Yann Yann and Chen Tianwen are always credible as the much-tested parents.

John Hartl:

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