When growing up in Singapore, filmmaker Anthony Chen’s family had a maid from the Philippines, a woman he and his two younger brothers called Aunt Terry.
But the family had to downsize in 1997 due to the Asian financial crisis, which plummeted the stock market and caused massive unemployment. They had to let Aunt Terry go and she returned to her hometown province of Iloilo in the Philippines.
In 2013, Chen’s film “Ilo Ilo” based on his childhood experiences was the talk of the Cannes Film Festival. The drama received a 15-minute standing ovation after the screening, and Chen won the prestigious Camera d’Or for best debut feature. The movie opens Friday in Los Angeles in limited release.
The publicity surrounding the film, said the 29-year-old Chen, caught the attention of the Filipino media. Chen was contacted to see if he knew where Aunt Terry was living. "We had lost contact for, like, 16 years,” Chen said over the phone from his home in London.
“We had no address or contact number. We couldn’t remember her last name. We just could remember her first name was Teresa. I gave them two photographs and literally they looked for her using TV, radio and newspapers. Two weeks later, they found her.”
Since leaving the Chen’s employment, she had been living and working on the family farm in Iloilo. Last July, Chen went to the rural province to reunite with Aunt Terry.
“It was surreal,” said Chen. “I think as a child you sort of immortalize the people around you. When you don’t see someone for such a long time and you meet them again, it’s just a whole mixed bag of emotions because you don’t expect them to grow older. It was a lot of tears.”
The following month, Chen brought her to the premiere of “Ilo Ilo” in Singapore, where the film was shot. "We didn’t talk much about the film to her [before it started], but she told me: “You make me laugh. You make me cry.”’
Chen is surprised at the strong, often emotional response to “Ilo Ilo” “because it is a very small and humble film. It is not a very muscular, very subversive, loud sort of film.”
“Ilo Ilo” isn’t completely autobiographical. “Unfortunately, when you think about it, real life has no dramatic structure,” said Chen, who entered film school at age 17 in Singapore and received his masters in film directing at the National Film and Television School in London.
“I would say 60% to 70% is from real memories and events,” said Chen. “I had a very deep memory of the financial crisis in 1997. My father was a sales manager and lost his job. He never found a good job again.”
The original draft included Chen’s two younger brothers. But he jettisoned his siblings when he realized he had to “focus on emotions and the characters a bit more. The final version only had one kid.”
The filmmaker noted that he was a “much better kid” than his belligerent reel-life self. “I felt dramatically I had to push this character. When I was growing up, I was much more a prim and proper child. I was not the one bullying others. I was probably the one being bullied.”
Chen said he didn’t come up with the idea for the film, “it was like the idea came to me. Childhood at one point will come back and haunt any one of us at different stages in our lives.”