Director – Anthony Chen – 2013 – Singapore – Cert. 12 – 99m
A Filipino maid must contend with the unruly son of a working Singaporean couple in a time of economic difficulty – now available to rent online in the new Chinese Cinema Season 2021 in the UK & Ireland as part of the Debut Spotlight strand until Wednesday, May 12th
1997, the Asian financial crisis is looming (see Default, 2018, Choi Kook-Hee) and the Leng family is under pressure. Secretary Hwee (Yeo Yann Yann) works for a shipping company that has hit difficult times: one of her jobs is to type up redundancy letters for staff who are about to be called into the manager’s office. She believes she and her immediate admin colleagues are safe. Her husband Teck (Chen Tian Wen) is a sales executive, but on the evidence of his pitching ‘unbreakable’ glass to a buyer – it breaks – is not that good at it.
The couple are expecting a second child. They’ve been so focused on work, though, that they perhaps haven’t spent as much time as they should with their son Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) who has the worst behaviour record in his school and is frequently the recipient of corporal punishment by the discipline teacher.
Because it’s the thing to do for a middle class Singaporean family, they take on a Filipino maid. Teresa or Terry for short (Angeli Bayani) must overcome the boy’s initial hostility when she’s required to share his room. An incident where he refuses her request to leave playmates and come inside to do homework results in a chase where his bike is hit by a car, his arm is broken and his none too pleased parents have to leave work to take him to hospital.
Little by little, Teresa starts to win Jiale’s trust. It’s as if he’s been starved of parental love which she is suddenly able to provide. With both parents asking not to be phoned at work, Teresa is the one who goes to school and pleads against Jiale’s being expelled when the boy, while sticking up for his maid in a fight, delivers a near-fatal blow to the head to a fellow pupil. Terry’s intervention makes Jiale’s actual mother furious when she finally arrives late.
Teck meanwhile has lost his sales job but picked up a by the hour paid security guard position, not telling his wife. He smokes on the stairs – she thinks he gave up years ago and has Terry sweep up the ash from the stairwell after grumbling about inconsiderate neighbours.
This is a solid drama showing the effects of the pressure of work on a typical middle class family where the child suffers as a result. It moves around between the characters, although the focus is particularly on the son, a winsome performance by Koh moving from inconsiderate problem child to boy showing genuine affection to the maid looking after him.
It focuses equally on Teresa and her plight, with the mistress of the house taking her passport for safe keeping (“in case she tries to run away,” she tells her husband when he asks), and her attempts to do extra work on her day off to supplement her income. It turns out she has a baby son back in the Philippines who she can’t see because of the economic imperative of working abroad, a state of affairs largely beyond the ken of her employers.
Curiously, both the Koh and Yeo would go on to work again with director Chen on his later Wet Season (2019) about a teenage boy embarking on a relationship with his teacher. The two films would make a fantastic double bill.