When local filmmaker Anthony Chen was preparing to make his feature debut, Ilo Ilo, a semi-autobiographical drama about a naughty teen and his relationship with his parents and their Filipino maid during the 1997 financial crisis, he had one actor in mind to play the beleaguered patriarch: Ex-Mediacorp actor Xie Shaoguang.

But Xie declined the offer: he had since 2005 quit showbiz to pursue a life in religious fulfillment in Malaysia. The writer-director then reached out to another Ch 8 actor he grew up watching: Chen Tianwen.

“Anthony got my phone number through a third party,” Chen, 55, tells 8 DAYS in Mandarin over coffee at the Killiney Kopitiam cafe at the Mediacorp Campus. “It wasn’t really an interview; we just chatted and he asked if I was keen to work on an independent film.”

Naturally, Chen said yes and the rest, as they say, is history. The movie also stars Yeo Yann Yann as Chen's missus, first-time child actor Koh Jia Ler as his trouble-making son, and Filipino theatre and film actress Angeli Bayani as the domestic helper.

It has been a while since Chen last watched Ilo Ilo. “I think it was at an event to mark the movie’s cable TV premiere maybe three or four years ago.”  Now, it’s on Ch 5 and Toggle, as part of the ‘Lights. Camera. Singapore’ showcase.

The film went on win the Camera d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, and three Golden Horse Awards for Best Feature Film, Best New Director and Best Supporting Actress (for Yeo). Chen and Koh were nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Best New Performer, respectively.

During the course of filming Ilo Ilo, did Chen realise he was part of something special? “I did feel we were making a special movie. Anthony had told me that he was submitting it for competition. Never in a million years did I think it would actually win [so many awards].”

The interview has been edited and condensed. 

Catch Ilo Ilo on Ch 5 tonight (May 7), 10pm, and later on Toggle.

Photos: Fisheye Pictures, Giraffe Pictures, TPG News/Click Photos