A Handful of Stories

Reportage on health, science and politics. And some meditations on film

The ‘Maid’ Who Lies and Loses Her Temper

Ilo Ilo offers what Roma does not–a loving ‘domestic help’ who sometimes gives it back

The difference between the Mexican-American film Roma and the Singaporean film Ilo Ilo is that the “maid” Teresa speaks here. She has a point of view, unlike in Roma where we see Cleo mostly as the recipient of conversations, barely a participant even in her love affair. “I don’t care if you like me or not,” Terry (Teresa) tells Jiale, the pre-teen boy she is part nanny to. “You don’t like me, I don’t care. Your mom employed me, I am here to do my work properly. I am your maid, but I didn’t come here to be bullied.”

Aside from this, Terry is a quiet presence. I don’t like the word “dignified” which is often used for the subaltern subject. What dignity is, is defined by the powerful and it invariably implies acceptance of the terms set by the powerful meekly without protest. Yet what could be more dignified (and dignifying) than protest? Terry gives her passport when her boss asks for it, she accepts that this is the currency of domestic servitude in this place, but she does not allow every humiliation that is thrown at her. When Jiale slips a package into her shopping bag so that she is caught for shoplifting, for instance, she tells him off with the words I quoted above. She decides to make some money on the side on her day off from the job, which is forbidden by the law in Singapore. She works with a Filipina hairdresser and lies to Jiale’s mother about it. She is a loving, maternal presence to Jiale, and the shadow of her unseen son back home in the Phillipines is always present in this relationship. But she is distinctively less saint-like than Cleo in Roma.

The voice that is unheard in the lovely Roma, the critic Richard Brody has written, is Cleo’s. We see her long hard days, rising before the household she serves and working long after they have gone to bed. In a striking scene, everyone including Cleo is watching television together. When the “master” asks for a snack, Cleo rises without being directed to. Even in a household as “nice” as the director Cuaron’s (Alfonso Cuaron has called the film an ode to their childhood maid), it is clear who the snack request is directed at. But Cleo’s voice never comes to the fore like Terry’s, and we never get a sense of her home, her family back there like we do from Terry’s phone conversations. Arguably, this is what the academic Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak meant when she asked the tectonic question, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

I recently wrote about relationships of servitude in cinema, masters and servants, maids, help, domestic personnel, whatever you call them. (I am not dismissing politically correct language, I think there is a lot of power in language. But to my mind, the change in language is only meaningful if it is underscored by rights.) In a film like Roma, and in mainstream Hindi cinema (or Bollywood), this relationship is often depicted with the heroic decency of the subaltern. The “noble servant” is a form of the “noble savage” of colonial anthropology, an uncomplaining, amazing often magical person. The Korean film Parasite is the gamechanger it is because it shows the subaltern as resourceful and manipulative without eroding their dignity. I saw Ilo Ilo afterward, and learnt that it preceded the film by five years. I think it treads the same ground that Parasite does, by giving Terry a little anger, a little lip and some secrets of her own.

I have spent time living in Singapore thanks to a generous fellowship and I love the city. Thanks to the nature of the journalistic fellowship, I am aware of the invisible Singapore—the less than gleaming city of migrant workers, domestic workers, sex workers, senior citizen and the near-absence of rights for this demographic. I have written stories on this city, I know it in my mind but this was the first fully-realised portrait of this Singapore that I saw on screen. A place of possibility that comes with folded rights.

Ilo Ilo is showing on Mubi India
Director Anthony Chen
Starring Angeli Bayani, Koh Jia Ler, Yeo Yann Yann, Tian Wen Chen