8 Questions with Anthony Chen

Anthony Chen Ilo Ilo Cannes Camera d'Or film festival winner Zhang Ziyi
Anthony Chen receiving the Camera d'Or at Cannes, with Zhang Ziyi
Anthony Chen Ilo Ilo Cannes Camera d'Or film festival winner Zhang Ziyi
Anthony Chen receiving the Camera d’Or at Cannes, with Zhang Ziyi

We interview Singapore’s Cannes Film Festival winner on how it felt and how life has changed

By Lester J Wan

Ilo Ilo, Singapore’s award-winning film at the recent 66th Cannes Film Festival, has opened in cinemas. It is the first Singaporean feature film to win a major prize at Cannes.


This Singaporean story that charmed Cannes is about a family struggling through the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and centres on the relationship of a ten-year-old boy and the family’s Filipino helper.

Director Anthony Chen was both surprised and ecstatic at the win. At the press conference, he revealed that he had called his wife and she was so excited that she asked if she could make it in time for the after-party if she were to catch the next flight from the UK [where she was] to France.

We managed to get an interview with this busy new celebrity director to find out how it felt and how life has changed for him.


1. When did you realise you wanted to be a filmmaker?

I made the decision at 15 when I was exposed to foreign language films which expanded the idea of cinema for me. While everyone was spending Sec 3 and 4 mugging for ‘O’ Levels in Chinese High, I was reading about film directors and their careers in the library.

I knew then I wanted to go to film school, and found out about Ngee Ann’s School of Film and Media Studies. It was the only film school available in Singapore at that time.

I’m not sure if any particular director was my inspiration then, but Ang Lee certainly is my inspiration now.

Questions with Anthony Chen interview yeo yann yann zhang ziyi winner of cannes film festival
The struggles and tension between the members of the family and their maid are highly relatable

2. Could you tell us a little about your previous productions?

I made ten short films before Ilo Ilo. G-23 was my first short, a graduation film I made at Ngee Ann. It surprised me when it screened at over 50 film festivals and won multiple awards in Europe and Asia. That gave me more confidence to go on making films.

My second short was Ah Ma, which won a Special Mention at Cannes. This was a rather personal film that was made after the passing of my grandmother, so I really never expected it to be selected at Cannes.

I went on to make more shorts at the National Film and Television School in the UK when I pursued a Masters in Film Directing.

3. What are scenes in the film that are similar to your own experiences?

It is very much inspired by my memories of growing up in ‘90s Singapore. I had a Filipino helper who was with us for eight years; she shares the same name as the title character, Teresa. She is from Ilo Ilo, that’s why the title.

4. How did it feel winning the Camera d’Or at Cannes? What was going through your mind?

It is an incredible honour, not just for me or the film, but for the country. It is a significant award for Singapore cinema.

I was just telling myself to not make my country “lose face”, don’t say the wrong things and remember to thank the right people. After all, it was broadcast live across Europe.

Anthony Chen Ilo Ilo Yeo Yann Yann Zhang Ziyi Cannes film festival winner
Yeo Yann Yann’s portrayal of the mother is very real

5. What challenges did you face in filming Ilo Ilo?

There were so many, from casting to finding the right locations, props and costumes to get the period right. I had a supportive core team, particularly my Director of Photography and my Assistant Director, who fought really hard to realise my vision.

It was a painful struggle but I made a point to try as much as possible to not compromise.

6. How has life changed for you since you won?

I have been fielding interviews in different countries and also in Singapore for the past three months. I haven’t had time and space to really think of what’s next. Hopefully I will get to do some soul searching on one of the many flights in my busy travel schedule.

7. Are you afraid of higher expectations now?

There is pressure of course, but I have learnt that I can live with it as long as I put in my heart and soul into every project. Then, even if it does not do as well whether critically or in terms of numbers, I still feel I have given it all.

If I allow the weight of expectations to take over, it will kill me very quickly. I hope to keep grounded and aim to preserve integrity in whatever next project(s) I decide to do.

Anthony Chen Ilo Ilo Zhang Ziyi Cannes film festival winner domestic helper live-iin families
Many Singaporean families have a live-in domestic helper

8. What are your thoughts on Singapore?

I think we have so much potential that needs unearthing; sometimes we try so hard to be something we are not. I do feel we just need to learn to be ourselves.

Ilo Ilo opened in cinemas on Aug 29 in Singapore and Sep 4 in France.

Republished from Issue 48.