In 1997, a currency crisis in Thailand (instigated, some say, by speculators) spread to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, and South Korea. This crisis, which was followed by the Russian financial crisis in 1998, serves as the background for a straightforward but brilliant film by Anthony Chen, Ilo Ilo. The plot: Two Chinese Singaporean parents live in a stuff-packed apartment with their 10-year-old son, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler). Because the parents work all of the time to maintain their middle-class position, the boy is neglected. Because he is neglected, Jiale misbehaves at school. The solution to this problem, the parents decide at the beginning of the movie, is to hire a nanny from the Philippines, Teresa (Angeli Bayani).
At first the boy is mean to his nanny, but he soon forms a bond with her. She is a caring woman and he turns out to be a nice boy. Meanwhile, the economy is crashing. The father is laid off from his job as a sales representative, and all the mother does at her job (a secretary at a factory) is compose layoff notices for employees—her job is safe for now. The family, which is expecting a child, loses everything on the stock market and begins to sink out of the middle class. Eventually, the parents have to make a tough decision, to make deep cuts in their expenses.
The best things in Ilo Ilo are the cinematography, which throws the viewer right into the material core of the Chinese Singaporean family (the location of the apartment, the size of the kitchen, the quality of the living room furniture and bed in the master bedroom); the performances, which convincingly capture the dark and unspoken details of Singapore's racial and class hierarchies; and, finally, the story, which is simply heartbreaking.