Anthony Chen’s Camera D’Or winning debut, the first Singaporean film to win at Cannes (and the first Singaporean film I’ve certainly seen), is an intimate and subtle look at the dynamics of a Singaporean family living in a time of economic crisis in the late 90s, based on Chen’s own childhood. It centres around the Lim family, husband and wife Yann Yeo Yeo (Hwee Leng) and Teck (Tian Wen Chen), son Jialer (Jialer Koh) and the newly arrived Fillipino maid Terry (Angeli Bayani).
We see from the beginning the difficulty Yann is having with Jialer as we see him hurt his arms by rubbing them against the window slats, and then blame his teacher for the marks. And we see the harried, frustrated pregnant Yann at her office in the shipping company receiving another phone call from the school about his bad behaviour (it is evident this has happened before). And we see her anger as she pulls him out of school (“You’re going to drive me to my grave” is her repeated phrase to him throughout the film).
So when the maid comes we can only sympathise that she’s not going to have a much better time, especially given her status in Asian society which looks down on immigrant servants. The film saying a lot about how dismissively maids are treated in middle-class Asian families. And indeed at first Jiangle is rude and obnoxious, not wanting her to sleep in his room and shouting at her when she tries to adjust the picture of his granddad. But slowly he comes to trust her and the shift in relations is captured in the struggle to get Jiangle to wash himself which turns into a playful prank of getting Terry wet with the shower head.
From then on we see Jiangle and Aunty Terry (a familiar term that Jiangle uses) becoming closer and closer as Yann jealously looks on, unable to gain the same attention from Jiangle as she works long hours at her job and maintains a Tiger mother-like distance from her wayward son. And it is clear that Terry’s position in the family is extremely fragile.
Chen also makes sure however not to have Yann be one-dimensionally cold and dominating. So we also have sympathy for her (particularly in her pregnant condition), as in the one scene where Jiangle refuses to eat the fish that she has bought especially for him insisting that Aunty Terry cooks better, and she throws it away in anger and upset. Or in the scene where Yann realises that the self-development course she was going to take in order to help the family’s situation was a con, and Teck casually remarks that only “stupid people” would buy into it, and we see the profound disappointment and sadness on her face.
The parents are also meanwhile coming under the pressures of economic collapse as Teck is made redundant, is unable to find work and loses money. The strains in the relationship grow more evident, illustrated in a scene where Yann angrily tells an upset Teck that he shouldn’t be starting his own business because he’d be no good at it, and where Teck keeps from his wife the fact he still smokes (Yann having preciously accused Terry of smoking) and the maid inevitably bears the brunt of this strain.
Chen demonstrates then how economic pressure creates distance, and for Terry we learn that she herself is distant from her son having left him behind in the Phillipines to make a better life for herself. And the fallacy of this ‘better life’ is also evident in the long distance calls to her family where we hear of her sister’s problems with her drunken partner, but also how her sister still thinks she has it harder.
In one key scene this sense of things not being much better than they are back home for Terry is made shockingly and abruptly evident when we see Terry witness a woman fling herself off a nearby apartment after dropping the washing (which Yann had ironically warned her could kill someone). In that moment Chen goes away from the film’s naturalistic mode of shooting, to cut the sound and brighten the screen as we see Terry’s shocked face in close-up, heightening the sense of dislocation and the harsh reality of her newfound life. A life which also doesn’t allow her to even hold onto her religion, at least openly, for support as one neighbour tells her bluntly when Terry confirms that she has brought her rosary beads: “Forget it, there’s no room for God here!”
The film also highlights the disciplined nature of Singaporean society, and we see the strict regimen of Jiangle’s school which has ceremonies where children chant about the importance of obedience. And where any sign of rebelliousness in the case of Jiangle is dealt with ruthlessly, with no taking into account the circumstances of the offence such as the fact the child he beats up was picking on him about his close relationship with Terry, making Jiangle’s rebelliousness much more understandable as we feel his sense of alienation.
It is an intriguing and balanced look then at Singaporean family life at a time of crisis, exploring major themes of class, beloved family relationships, Asian cultural values and identity through an Edward Yang-like domestic prism, with great acting all round. It may be a small film (made for under £300, 000, and which Chen thought would be unnoticeable at Cannes), but it has a big things to say and great resonance.