By Gerard Edic (St. Louis, Missouri, US)
A nanny provides an integral for a family, assisting with daily chores and rearing the children. They’re the gear that keeps the machine- the family- operating. And often times they’re usually just a backdrop, their significance neglected.
So seems to be the case for Teresa, a 28 year old Filipino maid who’s come to help the Lim family in Singapore. She is a foreigner in a new country, an outsider in the Lim family, and clearly not welcomed.
Set against the backdrop of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, the Lims struggle to keep themselves together amid financial scams, mass layoffs, and the turbulence of everyday life. Teck Lim, the father, has a gambling problem, hoping that either lotto tickets or stocks will be his family’s quick exit out of financial constraint. His wife, Hwee Leng, pregnant with their second child, is over stressed and overworked. She oversees staff layoffs at her office, telling herself the same won’t happen to her. Jiale, their son, is fidgety, chaotic, and unruly at school, often getting in trouble. They need help. They need a maid.
Teresa, or Terry as she prefers, arrives in Singapore, unable to find her footing. A fellow Filipino maid from across the apartment hall tells Terry to ditch her rosary, telling her “There is no room for God here.” This may be true, as she, Terry, and the other Filipino workers only get one day off a week. And even then, they’ll use that day to work.
As a maid, Terry sees the vulnerabilities of the Lim family. She sees Teck smoke, even though Hwee believes he has quit. Jiale treats Terry with heated animosity at first, doing everything from running away from her to slipping non-purchased goods in her shopping bag to make it look as if she’s shoplifting. “I am you maid, but I didn’t come here to be bullied,” Terry tells Jiale sternly. Soon Jiale and Terry bond, with Jiale even referring to her as Auntie.
Though Jiale may no longer bully her, it’s not the same from Hwee Leng. Hwee is immediately dismissive and distrusting of Terry upon her arrival, taking and locking away her passport in an effort to prevent her from running away, a common tactic used to abuse to foreign workers. As Hwee’s grip on her family and professional life slip away, she continues to takes her anger out on Terry through extra work and a stern voice.
Ilo Ilo touches upon a common reality for many Filipinos today- that they must go overseas in order to work and provide for their families. Terry is just one of the more than 2.2 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). According to the Philippines Statistic Authority’s 2016 Survey on Overseas Filipinos, a large majority of OFWs work in either elementary occupations (jobs with repetitive and simple tasks), at 35%, or as service and sales workers at 19%. They leave behind their home country, where opportunities are scare, and the pay is low, in search of a better life. And even in search of better opportunities, OFWs face abuse abroad, where they face risk of sexual harassment, docked pay, and even death.
News has been spreading in the Philippines over the death of Joanna Demafelis, an OFW whose body was in found a freezer in Kuwait. As Rappler profiles, Joanna, a house worker, had no intention of leaving her country until a typhoon destroyed her and her parent’s home. Despite the news of abuse and death OFWs faced in Kuwait, the salary was so alluring, Joanna couldn’t resist.
Even fellow Filipinos have committed abuses on their own kind. Alex Tizon, an esteemed Filipino American journalist (now deceased), recounted how his family had brought with them an elderly Filipino, Eudocia Tomas Pulido, referred to as “Lola” (grandma) by the family, with them from the Philippines to the US to live with them as a maid. As the title of his essay suggests, “My Family’s Slave,” she was anything but a maid. Tizon wrote how both her mother and father took their anger out on Lola after a day of work. Tizon’s mother was particularly viscous, hurling insults and locking her passport away. Just like Terry, and countless other OFWs, Lola worked to raise stranger’s children, unable to do the same for their own.
Terry is spared the worst of that abuse.
Ilo Ilo ignores larger story arcs, instead focusing on the daily tenors of life. Far from offering heaps of sentimentality or weaves of luck, the film is rooted in reality, depicting the daily grudges of life both the Lims and Terry must face. Because of this, the movie occasionally does stall, feeling slow at some points. But this makes up for a more realistic rendering of life for what OFWs have to endure.