Why do foreign films seem more successful than those made in the U.S. at capturing the essence of daily life? The year has already brought to town a steady stream of memorable new films from distant locales - Britain’s The Selfish Giant, Iran’s The Past, and India’s The Lunchbox (which also opens today in New Orleans, see our review here) to name but a few - that manage to find something both exotic and universal in the seemingly mundane. Singapore’s Ilo Ilo is another case in point. It’s not hard to see why writer-director Anthony Chen won the Camera d’Or (for the best film by a first-time director) with Ilo Ilo at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Chen’s soft-spoken film dwells on the everyday struggles of an average middle-class family but also reveals the fluid subtleties at the core of family relationships.

It probably didn’t hurt that Chen loosely based his first film on his own life as a child. Ilo Ilo takes place in Singapore during the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Ten-year-old Jiale can’t keep out of serious trouble in school. The boy’s father is in danger of losing the family’s savings in a bad stock deal, and his mother only seems disappointed by what life has brought her. The arrival of “maid” Terry from the Philippines - essentially an indentured servant in an unfamiliar land - further strains the family’s tenuous bonds, first because Jiale rejects Terry outright and later because she manages to supply the parenting the boy has always needed (Chen was reunited with his real-life Filipina nanny after the film was released). There’s not a single false moment as the story evolves, and much to savor in both the cast’s natural performances and Chen’s understated but perceptive work.

Ilo Ilo opens today, Friday, April 18, exclusively at Zeitgeist Movies.