Xie Shao Guang on ILO ILO

Our team just came across this interesting letter, an exclusive from Lianhe Zaobao, the main Singapore Chinese daily newspaper《联合早报》, written by Xie Shao Guang on his thoughts about director Anthony Chen and ILO ILO. We found an English translation of the letter on ILO ILO's main Facebook Page and just had to share it with our readers.

For readers who are not familiar, ILO ILO has won the Camera d'Or for best first feature film at Cannes, and will be Singapore's representing film for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.

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From ILO ILO's Facebook Page:
Some of you might remember Xie from watching Singapore Channel 8 dramas growing up, during the days when Mediacorp was known as TCS (Television Corporation of Singapore). Xie is a critically acclaimed Singaporean actor who is now retired, but was compelled to pen this letter to express his thoughts and admiration for Anthony and his talent for filmmaking.

Again, it's a very long read, but we felt that we had to share his beautifully written words with all of you. Here's a translation of the letter, enjoy!

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One may find traces of Edward Yang or Wong Kar-wai in Anthony Chen’s short films, and not the pretentious, stilted pieces of cinema you would expect from a typical film student. Anthony's mastery of film is, to say the least, exceptional, and to present his work infused with his own style in such fluency, demands a high level of proficiency. This not only requires a good deal of hard work, but sheer talent to begin with. Some shots may look simple, but it is not as easy as it looks to get it just right. Like a film projector, an obsolete instrument which is fast becoming a relic of the past, Anthony sketches the background of his stories with his characters; his cinema a shelter for those terrified by reality. Such observations of human nature are even more profound than in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso.

Interestingly enough, I noticed some product placement in his films. Obviously this director has a good understanding of the obstacles an independent production would have to deal with. The future of his career is also dependent on him being able to balance his aesthetic vision with commercial realities.

I was completely blown away after watching his graduation film Lighthouse. Converging themes about escape, self-discovery, and going home, while aptly conveying the economic climate of the day; the opinionated mother, whose "been there, done that" approach to love, and the subtle emotional violence towards her son’s adolescence - are extremely sophisticated reflections of human psychology. The great thing about Anthony is that he is able to really get into his characters' heads, their motivations and mentalities, so much so that their emotions are intense yet subtle, which in turn allows audiences to really associate their own experiences with these characters. Lighthouse is like poetry, full of metaphors. Maybe his experience overseas had broadened up his perspective of film. Perhaps it was also fate that led him to a cinematographer who could truly understand his vision. When Anthony told me ILO ILO was to be filmed by his French classmate Benoit Soler, I almost wanted to say yes to a role in the film, on impulse of course. The Caméra d’Or now seems like a solid affirmation to this fantastic combination of Anthony and Benoit.

Anthony has the gift of being able to elevate the many facets of filmmaking to an artistic level. His actors certainly had to use their most authentic emotions to allow their performance to transcend to a whole new level - therefore the performances in ILO ILO were more fascinating than ever.

Yeo Yann Yann did not just give up the role she fought so hard for after finding out she was pregnant. Anthony eventually took the risk of rewriting the script for her "unforeseen circumstances". The mutual trust and the dedication to their craft had no doubt positively influenced the rest of the cast. It was Yann Yann's first pregnancy, and all the physical and psychological changes a woman experiences when she is expecting naturally translated into her performance in ILO ILO. Her pregnancy achieved a wonderful result which could not have been possible otherwise, whether by acting or prosthetics.

ILO ILO is about a family who hires a domestic helper, and the subtle changes of parenting after getting hit by the Asian financial crisis. When I read the script, I noticed Anthony's ingenious choreographing of plotlines in the story's structure. The intense underlying emotions create such tension in the story. The Tamagotchi was thrown away, then replaced with a real chicken. The chicken was raised amid the tense family environment, and eventually became a dish on the dinner table. It reflects the absurdity of humans while being realistically logical; a wonderful stroke of black humour.

Anxiety caused by financial pursuit and the uncertainty of the future, when one faces obstacles too difficult to overcome and is tempted to go all in - that is the gambler's mentality. Chen Tianwen bet all his savings in the stock market. Yeo Yann Yann picks up a discarded flyer, looking for some life-changing inspiration from a motivational speaker, who turns out to be a scam. The parents' hope for a miraculous change of fortune influences the son to bet all his hope on winning the lottery. The number he bribed his discipline master with did strike the lottery, and made us believe he was some sort of lottery-winning genius. All of us were excited to see what miracle would follow, with that blessed gift of his, but when he needed a miracle most, all we saw was his tearing face. So we too were deeply moved by the unexpected separation of the boy and his maid, whose close relationship had only just been established.

We lose our innocence when we pursue the realistic, practical needs of life. When we are old, we feel the cruelty of being left behind by the ever-changing times. With our decaying lives we can only put our hope on our offspring, a rather naive, wistful thought; perhaps this is the human condition: forever asking questions nobody has answers for. The relationships between Anthony's characters are all based on family values; the story's main theme is irrelevant, as there is always a certain warmth in it. He tells stories about children, because children are the light in the darkness of despair. Anthony shows the human condition with the innocence of children, and he is exceptional at telling stories with children in them. He once said he wanted to be like Yang Yang, the boy in Edward Yang’s "Yi Yi"; to capture and show people what they can't see for themselves. If he continues with this belief in himself, he will become a great artist.

Anthony was very kind to share his film with me, as I got to read the script almost as soon as he completed it. I have seen him in rehearsals with Jia Ler, I have also been on the set to get a feel of the production. When I saw the first cut, it turned out to be even more profound than I thought it would be. I heard about the difficulties he had to overcome during the making of the film, but all I could do was to provide moral support. And he overcame those obstacles dignity and grace.

A small pond cannot hold a big fish for long, and as long as the big fish is not stranded along the way, it will eventually find a bigger sea, gliding gracefully to the ocean of art. I am so thrilled that ILO ILO made it to Cannes, to be seen by so many who can appreciate it for what it is. It is not that surprising that it actually won.

I’ve always dreamt of becoming a director myself, and it was Anthony who helped me achieve this dream, in spirit of course. For this I would like to thank him. This was the sweetest dream, and I say it with gratitude and tears. May you be blessed, Anthony.

Xie Shaoguang

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