Singaporean filmmaker, Filipino heart

Jansen Musico (The Philippine Star) - November 30, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - I’ve never had Jollibee,” Anthony Chen muses, “In Singapore you always have to queue for hours.” It’s his third time in the Philippines, and this Cannes Camera d’Or recipient is craving something Filipino. He’s in the country to promote Ilo Ilo, his first full-length feature about Aunty Terry, a Filipino maid who wins over her problem child of a ward. It took three years for Chen to complete the project, requiring him to dig deep into his past. His efforts are paying off. Since his Cannes win in May, he’s been touring the globe non-stop, making him and lead actress Angeli Bayani, prominent names in world cinema. On Dec. 4, Ilo Ilo will be on screens nationwide.

SUPREME: When you started making films, did you ever expect that you’d get this big?

ANTHONY CHEN: No. I remember when I was a student, my dream was to win an award by the time I hit 40. I did it when I was 23, with my short film (Ah Ma, at Cannes.) Did I expect that I’d go back to Cannes and win again? No, I didn’t.

What was going through your head when you went to Cannes this time around?

I was very anxious, because we were this humble little film from Singapore. We didn’t have the huge budgets like other films had. We didn’t have big stars. I was worried that our film would be overshadowed. I was also very anxious that the Western audience wouldn’t understand a film so intrinsically Asian.

What kinds of stories do you like telling?

I’m always interested in people and in relationships. My films are more domesticated. I’m less interested in big, dramatic twists. I’m more interested in the small, little tensions between people. So family is a recurring theme in my films sometimes.

Is that why you picked your Aunty Terry to be the subject of your first full-length feature?

I don’t know. When I was trying to find an idea, all these memories came back. I think in Singapore, you spend most of your time growing up, chasing grades and then chasing a career. When you spend time being an adult, you forget your childhood. And at that point in time, somehow my childhood memories came into my head. I remembered a lot of events, a lot of people, and a lot of things. And then of course, Aunty Terry formed a big part of my growing up years. She was with us for eight years. I thought there was a film in there. I wanted to explore it.

How is Ilo Ilo different from your real-life experiences?

You can never take real life and turn it into a film because it would be too boring. It doesn’t sit into a narrative structure. I had to dramatize certain events and characters, but there were certain devices and events that were really taken from real life. I had little chicks when I was growing up. That was in the film. The father in the film lost his job during the 1997 financial crisis. That happened to my dad as well.

You said before that you belong to a generation raised by Filipino hands. Is there a difference in Filipino upbringing with the way kids are usually brought up in Singapore?

I think it’s similar because whenever your mom is not around, they’re the ones who take over. In a way, they’re playing that maternal role. And I think that motherhood’s a universal thing. I don’t think it’s essentially different. Aunty Terry was nice to us. She took care of us, but she punished us as well, like a real mother. In all Singaporean families there’s a cane. It’s an important part of Singaporean society. (Laughs) She caned us before, when we bullied our youngest brother or when we fought. We were three boys at home. It was normal.

Angeli Bayani plays Aunty Terry in the film. How did you end up choosing her?

We didn’t have a lot of money, so we bought budget airline tickets and flew to Manila. We booked ourselves a cheap hotel. We didn’t have money for an audition space, so we auditioned people in my hotel room. That whole weekend was so dodgy. You’d see people walking in and out of my room. Angeli was the last one. I’m glad we saw her. She gave a very convincing performance. She was very, very tired at that time. Maybe it was a good thing? I didn’t decide straightaway. I came back to Singapore and looked back at the audition videos. She was the best that we found that worked for the film.

In the Philippines, some people call our household help yaya.

(Laughs) Yeah, I know. I’ve seen the film Inang Yaya.

Did you consider yourself a yaya’s boy?

I’d say that my youngest brother Christopher probably is, not me, because he’s the person closest to Aunty Terry. She came when he was a baby. She took care of him until he was eight years old — literally his whole experience of growing up.

What’s your fondest memory of her?

I remember, during Christmas, she would buy us toys. She wasn’t paid very much, but she bought us a set of really cool walkie-talkies. She loved listening to music. She had a CD of Lea Salonga and the cassette tape of Miss Saigon. She also liked watching cooking shows. We were always watching Yan Can Cook, that Martin Yan show. She always tried all these different recipes. She cooks very well. There are really specific memories of her.

Did she ever cook Filipino food?

No. Actually, that’s very rare. When Filipino helpers come to Singapore, they’re always taught to cook Chinese food. We didn’t have Filipino food.

Do you still keep in touch with her?

She doesn’t know how to use a mobile phone. It’s always through a friend in Iloilo who calls us and then passes the phone to her.

You brought Aunty Terry to Singapore for the film’s August premiere. What did she think of it?

I actually didn’t ask her directly. But she said something like, “You made me laugh. You made me cry.” That’s all she said, but I think her reaction was enough.



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