Ilo Ilo director reunites with maid who inspired Cannes award-winning film

6 August 2013 / 3 years 2 months ago

His big win at the 66th Cannes Film Festival in May has given him many happy, unforgettable moments.

Yet, local director Anthony Chen, who nabbed the Camera d’Or (Golden Camera) for best first feature film with his movie debut Ilo Ilo, said there is a bittersweet memory that will stay with him for a long time,
reported The New Paper.

Ilo Ilo opens here on Aug 29 and stars Yeo Yann Yann, Chen Tianwen, Filipino actress Angeli Bayani and child actor Koh Jia Ler.

The heartwarming tale, which revolves around a Singaporean family and their maid who befriends the family’s troubled son, was inspired by his former domestic helper, Madam Teresita D Sajonia.

His recent reunion with her at a small village in San Miguel, Iloilo, a province of the Philippines, was supposed to be a joyous occasion.

After all, they had not seen each other in 16 years.

Both parties had not kept in touch, though Chen, 29, found out later that Madam Sajonia had written a letter to them.

Unfortunately, the family had moved to a different address and they lost contact.

Yet, when Chen was confronted by her poor living conditions and how old and frail Madam Sajonia – or Aunty Terry, as he affectionately calls her – had become, his heart broke.

He told The New Paper over the phone last Thursday: “I remembered her as this very pretty and fashionable woman who loves to listen to musicals such as Evita and Miss Saigon on her cassette tapes.

“She’s only 56, but she looks like she’s 65 or slightly older.

”He added: “There were so many questions going through my head when I got there.

“How did her life change so much? I remember when she was here, she’d buy hi-fi sets and TV sets and ship them home.

“So the whole idea of her having just one light bulb and a transistor radio, with no proper stove, no proper drinking water...

It’s quite hard to believe.

”According to Chen, Madam Sajonia’s house is more of a hut, built with wooden planks and bamboo.

There are no proper walls or a door.

She has no mattress to sleep on, just a pillow, some blankets and a mosquito net.

The dilapidated house that she calls home is also shared with the chickens and ducks she raises to sell at the market.

What shocked Chen even more was not Madam Sajonia’s state of poverty, but rather that she had forgotten how to speak English.

“When she was with us, she spoke and wrote rather good English,” he said.

One of the fondest memories Chen had as a child was watching celebrity chef Martin Yan’s cooking show Yan Can Cook with Aunty Terry every afternoon.

“The show was popular in the 90s and Aunty Terry embraced Martin Yan’s catchphrase: If Yan can cook, so can you.

“She’d jot down the recipes in her notebook and try out the recipes on us.

She loved to cook.

”Chen’s youngest brother Christopher, 25, joined him on the three-day trip.

Christopher, he said, was the closest to Madam Sajonia as she was with him since he was a baby.

Chen has another younger brother, Justin, 27.

“I was four when Aunty Terry came and she left when I was 12,” Chen recalled, adding that Madam Sajonia had decided to return home of her own accord.

“She told my mum that she wanted to go back for health reasons and my mum agreed, though we weren’t sure what was wrong with her.

“The day she left was emotional.

I remember crying my eyes out at Changi Airport.

”Many tears were again shed this time, said Chen.

“We were all very overwhelmed by our emotions.

My brother and I kept asking what we can do to help,” he said.

“Aunty Terry was surprised to see us, though she had been informed that we were coming.

She kept asking ‘why are you doing this for me?’.

She didn’t feel that she had earned this kind of attention.

”Chen said that she refused to accept any monetary help or gifts.

Eventually, the brothers did take Madam Sajonia and her husband, Mr Jhunie, to have spectacles made.

“Both of them are not even seeing clearly.

The spectacles she was wearing were about 12 years old.

”The brothers also opened a bank account for her and the Chen family are looking at ways to see how they can make her life a bit easier.

“We are going to try to get her to go for a medical check-up with the help of our Filipino friends.

She hasn’t had one in so many years.

“We’re not sure if she’s suffering from any illness.

She said she has backache, but that’s from farming.

”Chen added: “At the end, Aunty Terry did ask for something – not money, but a pig.

She wants a sow so that she can breed other pigs.

The two pigs she has are very old.

”Madam Sajonia has never forgotten her time spent in Singapore with the Chen family.

“She’s carrying this pouch that my mother gave her.

And in it are photographs of our family.

She has been carrying the pouch everywhere she goes all these years,” he said.

Chen, who is based in London where his wife is pursuing a PhD in economics and statistics at the London School of Economics, said that his film has struck a chord with the Iloilo community.

“The people from Iloilo are so passionate about the film because they felt recognised for once.

“As they speak (their own dialect) Ilonggo and not Tagalog (the Philippines’ official language), they felt marginalised by the bigger Tagalog culture.

All of a sudden, the world knew where Iloilo was and it was through a Singapore film.

”Chen said his reunion with Madam Sajonia would not have been possible if not for the suggestion and help of Mr Charles Lim, a Chinese-Filipino businessman who had been following news of the movie since it
was selected for competition at Cannes.

Mr Lim, who was confident he could locate Madam Sajonia, resides in the Philippines and has businesses in Iloilo.

Chen said he expected the search would take months, even years, but within two weeks, he received word that Madam Sajonia had been found.

“There was such a media frenzy in the Philippines when news broke that Aunty Terry was found,” said Chen.

“When we were there, we had a police car going in front of us and one following our van.

We had all these military men with big guns protecting us just in case the villagers become a mob.

”Chen added that a main reason he had kept this trip low-profile was that he didn’t want anyone to take advantage of Madam Sajonia and the situation.

“The Filipino media were hounding her for quite a few days,” he said.

“She was quite distrustful of them at the start and didn’t appreciate the intrusion.

“But when she was told that we were coming to visit her and that she was an inspiration behind a movie, she was very surprised.

“Actually, I think she has forgotten what a movie is.

”He added: “She told the Filipino media that ‘every day, I have one hundred thoughts of them (the Chen family), but I don’t expect a single thought of me’.

”It will be a bigger reunion at the end of the month, when Madam Sajonia will be back in Singapore for a couple of days to attend Ilo Ilo’s premiere.

Her trip here is sponsored by Cebu Airlines, as were his and his brother’s air tickets to Iloilo.

“I’m excited, but also apprehensive.

Aunty Terry is so cut off from the modern world.

I’m not sure how she’ll react,” said a concerned Chen.

“She has not stepped into a cinema in 16 years, let alone out of the country.

”Chen recounted how one night in Iloilo, when they took Madam Sajonia out for dinner, she simply stared at the lift button, unsure of what to do.

“She has been in the rural areas for so long that she has completely lost touch with technology,” he said.

Chen, who is now in Australia to promote Ilo Ilo at the Melbourne International Film Festival, acknowledged that Ilo Ilo has taken on a life of its own and has brought him many unexpected things.

“It is taking me to places I’ve never been before.

I didn’t imagine that the film will reconnect me with Aunty Terry, but it did.

“I don’t know where else the film will take us.

It’s been a very dramatic, emotional and surreal year for me.”

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