Stories set in economic downturns aren't all that rare, but ones made with the subtle insight of Ilo Ilo are as precious and unique as it gets. And that's saying nothing about the film's perceptive, harsh study of human interactions, but since I've started on this road, let me follow it for a bit.

The film, the feature debut for writer-director Anthony Chen, takes place in Singapore in 1997, during the financial crisis that radiated throughout Southeast Asia in that year, a setting that it stresses not whatsoever, but which informs every last frame. It centers on the relationship between Terry (Angeli Bayani), an immigrant from the Philippines hoping to find work, and the family that takes her in as maid and de facto nanny. Father Teck (Chen Tianwen) is in sales, pregnant mother Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) is a secretary, and ten-year-old Jiale (Koh Jialer) is a coddled little shit who has no interest in considering other people as people. All three of them regard Terry as more of an ambulatory object than a fellow being, at least from the start, which doesn't end up playing out even slightly the way you would suppose. For while Terry is trying to assert her personhood in the face of bigotry that happily view here as just a random Filipina workhorse, Teck is busy trying to hide the fact that he's lost his his job, while Hwee Leng, busily handing out termination notices to her co-workers, is petrified that she's on the chopping block herself.

So what we have is not merely a parable about leaving one failing economy to a somewhat sturdier one (Singapore was less gutted by the financial downturn than the Philippines) and being resented by the people one finds there. It is that, but in the context of a story that recognises that tough times are tough all up and down the ladder, and that mean bosses have mean bosses of their own, and that living in a time of financial uncertainty tends to make everybody desperate and nastier. It's marvelously aware of how the pinch of money poisons everything in daily life, sympathetic towards the pain it causes even while it looks grimly upon those in the middle who direct their cruelty against those at the bottom. And all without even time-stamping itself to 1997, or allowing the social context of the story to function as anything but a quiet, steady background hum.

The plot up at the forefront, in the meanwhile, finds Terry doggedly doing her work as best she can manage, up to and especially including treating Jiale firmly for what might well be the first time in his life, and eventually, after the resentment has boiled away, winning the boy over. For it is also, apparently, the first time that a grown-up in his life has actually cared about him in any kind of active fashion. This pushes Hwee Leng into a jealous snit fit, lashing out at Terry for petty reasons but keeping her around anyway. Possibly specifically so that she has someone to lash out at.

Aesthetically, Chen and his crew heads - cinematographer Benoit Soler, editors Chen Hoping and Joanne Cheong, art director Michael Wee - opted here to go for a largely invisible realistic style, probably inevitably given the international standard for tales of economic woe among naturalistically-rendered human beings (calling it Dardenne-style filmmaking would be reductive and not necessarily accurate, but within the spirit of the thing). It's easy to get ahead of the film's look, then, and one couldn't honestly say that much if anything in Ilo Ilo is surprising on any level: certainly not visual, and mostly not in terms of storytelling, once you get past the relative paucity of films set in the throes of the 1997 Asian financial collapse.

What it banks on, as a result, is the precision of its emotional depictions, and the depth of its characters, and the skill with which they are presented for our benefit. Which proves to be an entirely sturdy basis for the movie to rest on. The quartet of central characters is pretty miraculous in their specificity and the nuances with which they are fleshed out; what looks to be a stock scenario, something like a Singaporean Nanny Diaries in a middle class setting, is complicated and enriched by how much Teck and especially Hwee Leng prove to be far more human than the obnoxious caricatures they're set up to be from the start. The terrific performances do a lot of this work, of course, with Yeo particularly layering a great deal of hurt and fear in between her rage, jealousy, and sniping (she won the award for Best Supporting Actress at the 2013 Golden Horse awards in Taiwan, alongside three other wins for the picture including Best Film).

But it also benefits from a crackerjack screenplay, written by Chen with a great deal of human detail and a conscious lack of overly dramatic contrivance. Things happen in small ways: there are angry confrontations, but they are all bound by domestic settings (this is a film which takes place predominately in tightly bound rooms; exteriors are always sudden, expansive spaces that trigger grand events), and always over tiny things - a sneaked cigarette, a bit of name calling. The film doesn't need bigger triggers than that to do all of its work of presenting these characters and their stressed-out lives.

So it is, all things told, a modest little slice of a movie; one in which small things are presently deftly but without showiness. Movies like this come out... not "all the time", but often enough that they're not really events. But movies like this are also not usually this perceptive and tightly built and anchored by such fully human characters, and this is enough to make Ilo Ilo a special movie, despite its lack of outward affect.