Singaporean filmmaker wins Camera d'Or at Cannes for "Ilo Ilo"

[UPDATE on 27 May 2013 with quotes from "Ilo Ilo" director Anthony Chen and producer Yuni Hadi]

Singaporean director Anthony Chen's film, "Ilo Ilo", made history and won top honours at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday, being awarded the Camera d'Or for Best First Film. Chen is the first Singaporean to win a top award at Cannes for a feature film.

The Camera d'Or is an award presented to the best feature-length film by a first-time feature film director. The jury citation for Chen's award read: "The director's intelligence and sensitivity bring forth very important issues -- childhood, immigration, class struggles and the economic crisis." "Ilo Ilo" is set in 1997, during the Asian financial crisis.

“It is a complete surprise and I'm still trying to take it in. This is not just an honour for me but for Singapore since it is the first time a feature from Singapore is awarded at Cannes. What really heartens me is that a story about an ordinary family in Singapore can touch the hearts of audiences miles away. The Camera d'Or is the most prestigious award for a first time feature film director and there is nothing more I can ask for with this very humble first film,” says Chen from Cannes.
“This is a big step for Singapore film in general, one that will associate Singapore films with quality in the eyes of international audiences, media, investors and critics. What we are excited about is showing our film back home later this year because at the end of the day, Singapore films record the stories of Singaporeans,” says producer Yuni Hadi.

Other Asian filmmakers performed well at Cannes this year too, into its 66th edition. Read more about their achievements here.

Winning the Palme d'Or is lesbian romance film La Vie d'Adele - Chapitre 1 & 2 (Blue is the Warmest Colour) by French director Abdellatif Kechiche, while the Grand Prix and Jury Prizes went to Inside Llewyn Davis by Americans Ethan and Joel Coen, as well as Soshite Chichi Ni Naru (Like Father, Like Son) by Kore-Eda Hirokazu of Japan respectively.

15-minute standing ovation

Chen described as “surreal” the 15-minute standing ovation that followed the world premiere of his debut feature film "Ilo Ilo" at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday.

Though the ending of the premiere couldn’t have been more perfect, the 29-year-old Chen said the beginning was quite “nerve-wrecking” as it was marred by technical glitches.

In an email interview with Yahoo! Singapore, Chen said that a power shortage caused the screening to stop twice and subtitles to disappear. He said he was “totally gutted” and worried that the audience would walk away. But the 800-strong full house audience was engaged and invested in the film and stood by the team.

The first time the film was cut off was at a scene where a family was celebrating a child’s birthday, singing the “Happy Birthday” song. The audience immediately filled the gap by singing along.

Chen and the team were left in tears following the standing ovation. He recalled seeing tears in the eyes of the audience and said the cast and crew were very moved that the audience could relate to the film, despite it being set in a country foreign to them.

Set amid the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis in Singapore, "Ilo Ilo" chronicles the relationship between a family and their new maid, Teresa. The family needed to adjust to her presence, which further threatened their already strained relationship. Still, Teresa and Jiale, the son, soon formed a bond.

The film even received a mention on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook page.

It’s not the first time that Chen graced the film festival, His second short film, Ah Ma, was nominated for the Palme d’Or for Short Film at the 60th Cannes Film Festival in 2007. It was awarded a Special Mention.

But for his first feature, Chen said he faced a lot of challenges. As he wanted a real sense of naturalism and the film is set in 1997, the finding of locations “became a big headache”. They had to “literally scour the entire island to look for authentic locations that felt like the 1990s” as Singapore has changed drastically over the years.

He also spent 10 months casting the lead child actor, “meeting over 8,000 children in 21 schools and auditioning 2,000 of them”.

Singaporeans will not have to wait too long for the film to come home; Chen revealed that the team is working with Golden Village to release the film in September.

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