This movie piqued my interest for a few different reasons. The first reason being in that it won a coveted slot at the Cannes Film Festival. And as I’ve mentioned in other reviews, if a movie gets hand picked and is shown at Cannes, 9 times out of 10 I’ll see it. But even moreover, that it Won the Golden Camera award. Which is usually given to young talents who have a particularly keen eye for film making. I also noticed that it had been Singapore’s Official Submission to the 2014 Oscars in the Best Foreign Film category. I personally have always felt that the foreign market produces much more quality film than we do here in the states. So when a film does well overseas, and garners attention from critics who know a thing or two (depending on who you ask) and have a love for international cinema. Most of the time, I will trust their judgement and check out whatever it is that people are talking about. This was another one of those cases.
Directed by Anthony Chen, the film depicts an upper middle class family in Singapore who are slowly dismantling because of societal forces. Their only child, Jaile, is growing older and becoming more and more of a handful. Along with that he’s also proving to be too much work for his parents’ increasingly busy work schedules. He’s just like any other adolescent who’s parents can’t give him with the love or attention that he so desperately needs. He’s insubordinate and rebellious, with no care for authority, and acts out at almost every opportunity he gets. Because of this, the parents hire a nanny to pitch in and help out with the extra work, specifically for that of their son. They chose a much younger, working class woman named Terry. Terry first encounters the same amount of trouble with the boy as do his parents. She tries at various opportunities to be firm with the boy, which is clearly what he needs, but that’s not always met with the best results. Then a pivotal moment in the film takes place and the two of them start to bond. Through their bonding we get to see how much difference she could make if the controlling parents (remember this is the upper middle class) would allow her more leeway in terms of how she tries to teach and educate the boy in ways that only serve his best interest. While the first half of the film focuses on the boy and the struggles his parents have with him along with the hiring of the nanny. Well, I’ll just say that the second half takes a much different turn and the examination shifts from that of the young boy, to adversities that both the nanny and the young boy’s parents face, interweaving themes of class oppression, career disappointment, religion, jealousy, and determination of the human spirit.
I thought this film was a pitch perfect depiction of family life within the upper crust and the types of adversity that families within this class face. It’s incredibly dense while also remaining undeniably subtle. Which I think was its greatest strength. I also really enjoyed the universality of some of the themes. Though the nanny is from a totally different walk of life, she very much faces the same setbacks and hurdles that the family does who has more financial stability to try and fix things does. There’s a great scene where up to this point in the picture, the father, being the alpha patriarch of the family, and who filters everything he wants to say to the nanny through his wife, starts experiencing similar hardships as she does, and invites her out to have a cigarette with him on their porch. And, like with many great acts of kindness, so much is said by just the gesture in and of itself, that it really creates an emotional resonance on the behalf of the viewer. I really liked the interdynamics and dichotomies of the relationships of the characters. Particularly that of the nanny and the family’s son and how it’s viewed by the parents. She’s the one practically raising the boy on her own, yet she’s under such scrutiny for every single thing she does. The two parents are so overly domineering and controlling over how they think he should be raised that they’re blinded by their own inability to be good parents. For all of the good things and aspects I could raise that I thought were so well done about this movie, it also left me feeling a little high and dry. I say this because I had so much invested emotional interest in the story and the characters through most of it, but come the end I felt like it didn’t necessarily follow me. It becomes this almost somber, meditative piece that I felt lost a bit of its poignancy in its final act. We get the meat and bones in the middle of the picture but then at the end of the piece, we’re barely left with much of anything. I kept thinking to myself “how are they possibly going to end this”? That, and I kept thinking that certain scenes would make for a good ending, only to see them jump ahead and continue on with a thread they had been unfolding and unfolding. When it finally does come to its finale, I knew I had witnessed something both touching and heartfelt, that really made me think. But that ultimately couldn’t carry itself out as it came to a close. I would definitely recommend it, particularly if you’re like me and gravitate towards family drams, especially ones with a cultural element. As it really is a great story. I just hope that if you do choose to see it, that unlike me, you aren’t left unsure what to think once its over while also asking yourself if you should have gotten more out of it.
Grade: B- (borderline but not quite a B)