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SGIFF 2019: An Interview with Anthony Chen, Director of Opening Film Wet Season

Anthony Chen is arguably Singapore’s most prolific filmmaker. The 35-year old rose to international acclaim with his debut feature film Ilo Ilo in 2013, receiving a fifteen-minute long standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival and winning the prestigious Camera d’Or. Ilo Ilo later went on to sweep the 50th Golden Horse Awards, winning Best Film, Best New Director and Best Supporting Actress (Yeo Yann Yann).

So it should come as no surprise that 6 years on, his sophomore feature film Wet Season has become one of the most hotly anticipated releases of 2019, set for its Southeast Asian premiere this November as it opens the 30th Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). Hot on the heels of 6 Golden Horse nominations and critical acclaim, it always feels like a landmark moment when a local film is selected to open the festival (the last one being Ken Kwek’s Unlucky Plaza in 2014), and for Anthony Chen, who possesses a long history with the festival, feels like a well-deserved homecoming.

“I’ve been based in London for about 12 years now, ever since I did my studies there,” says Chen. “But the SGIFF has always had a special place within my heart. I used to volunteer at the festival when I was 18, selling t-shirts, tickets and giving out programme booklets. In that time, I discovered so much, and it’s where I got many of my early lessons in cinema. At the time, I was in Ngee Ann Poly, and after school I’d go to man the stall.”

“As the 30th anniversary this year, it’s a special year, but no matter what, I always try to find time to keep coming back to the festival, whether it’s helping them moderate or do Q&As or host some foreign filmmakers,” he adds. “It’s a key part of the local film community and ecosystem, and I really hope attendance keeps increasing, and more Singaporeans should come and watch cinema.”

The 6 year gap between feature films honestly isn’t a surprising one, given how difficult it can be to make a film without being deeply embedded into the film industry machines of say, Hollywood. Says Chen: “It took me maybe 3 years to write Wet Season, as compared to 2 years for Ilo Ilo. This was an idea that was already conceptualised when filming Ilo Ilo, and something I didn’t realise after making my first film was the sheer amount of time I’d be spending promoting it. It began to feel like I was working for the film, and I was flying so often, I even ran out of in-flight entertainment to watch at some point.”

Wet Season, in brief, refers to Singapore’s seasonal torrential rains, and follows Ling (Yeo Yann Yann), a Chinese language teacher from Malaysia, whose marriage and school life are falling apart, while struggling with her inability to bear a child. But when she strikes up an unlikely friendship with her student Wei Lun, things begin to change for the better as she reaffirms her identity as a woman. “I wanted to write about a woman in crisis, where she was facing difficulties at work, marriage and family, and this deep desire to just walk out of it,” Chen explains. “I have always been interested in exploring female characters, and where in Ilo Ilo I examined motherhood and maternal instinct, Wet Season takes it one step further, and paints a delicate portrait of a woman, not recognised in her marriage nor at work, on a journey to redefine and rediscover herself.”

“I was 28 when I made Ilo Ilo, where my wife and were struggling for a long time and faced some health issues and problems having a child,” he adds. “I think all my films are personal, and sometimes when you look at a film, you can see that there’s certain raw emotions that go into it. Sometimes it’s difficult to put so much of yourself in the work; I know that Ang Lee for example, had to excuse himself so many times during the filming of Lust, Caution just to cry, and I had my moments where I broke down too. You put so much of yourself into the film and it just becomes you.”

Even though Wet Season deals with multiple themes from class to language, femininity to forbidden love, Chen explains how his films never stem from a deep desire to bring out these themes, but rather, characters. “I remember doing two weeks of press junkets in France, and a lot of the media kept going ‘oh it’s so great that Ilo Ilo talks about class struggles, foreign workers and migration’, but that was never where I started,” he says. “Film for me, is not just a construct in order for a person to exploit an issue, sure it can be a good vehicle to talk about an issue, but the most powerful films often have to get their characters right first, build on the world they live in from there, and then you get a moving, accurate portrait of society.”

“I don’t start a film going ‘oh I want to do a film about migration and alienation’,” he adds. “But I can write a character who deals with such themes. With Wet Season, that character was a 40-year old woman in crisis and figuring out how to get out of it, and the story naturally develops as we uncover what they really want and what they’re after, slowly revealing more details about her life. So many of my films are all about finding those details to reveal just who each of these characters are and where they’re from, from class to accents. My location managers are so important in helping me find the right setting for each scene, and all these hints tell my audience what household it is, who’s the breadwinner and how they live. Details like these help shape the characters and their relationships with each other, and by doing that, you capture a certain truth about the way we live.”

What exactly is it that makes an Anthony Chen film so quintessentially his then? “A lot of my work is quite simply about observing life and putting that on film, and representing that in a poetic way,” he says. “I find the daily routine of life something to be incredibly inspiring, with so much that can be extracted from it. Wet Season’s cinematography for example, is a lot more grounded than Ilo Ilo, with static shots that show a lot of concern for the mise-en-scene. It’s about representing the gaze of family and society, not to use a judgmental gaze to present my characters. I try to see my characters as equals, and to stay humble and honest. It’s still important for me to continue to take buses and MRTs and watch life from there, and sometimes, you really do end up hearing conversations that end up in my film. Cinema is there to put your perspective of life on the screen and elevate that, almost like you’re curating scenes of life itself.”

What’s perhaps also significant about Wet Season is how it reunites Chen with actors Yeo Yann Yann and Koh Jia Ler, who previously played a mother and son in Ilo Ilo. Especially with how the nature of their relationship changes so significantly, Chen actively avoided casting both actors. “We initially spent about one and a half years finding who would play Wei Lun, seeing hundreds of secondary school boys and did a year-long workshop with the shortlisted auditionees,” Chen explains. “But one day while I was scrolling through Instagram, I saw this boy in uniform and told my producer – ‘this guy could work.’ My producer stared at me and told me that was Jia Ler, who had changed so much since Ilo Ilo he was virtually unrecognisable now as an 18-year old. We brought him in for workshops, and he always shone brighter somehow, with this raw, instinctive talent of his whenever we did improv, and we ended up casting him.”

“And precisely because we had already cast Jia Ler, I was even more vehement about not casting Yann Yann, and even refused to let her audition for me” Chen continues. “My story was about a Malaysian moving to Singapore, and to have some authenticity to the role, I knew I had to find a Malaysian actress based in Singapore. We kept looking elsewhere, in Malaysia and Singapore for the right person. Yann Yann was very angry during that whole period, and when we realised the search was futile, I finally relented and let her try for the role.”

“I’ve known Yann Yann for years, and Ling has been this huge departure from all the other roles she’s played before,” Chen adds. “She was the right age, but she didn’t have quite the right personality or physicality I imagined for the role, but ultimately, she remained one of the best we’d auditioned and screen tested for. I forced her to lose weight, to lengthen her hair from a bob and dye it such that it softened her features to match the character.”

“There’s a sex scene in the film, and that’s partially one of the big reasons why I didn’t want to cast Jia Ler and Yann Yann. Back in Ilo Ilo, Jia Ler’s first role, he was calling Chen Tianwen and Yann Yann daddy and mummy onscreen and offscreen affectionately, and he does that still. It’s very off-putting on set and I had to set a ground rule to get them to stop doing that on set. But they’re both very professional of course, and dealt with the scene very well.”

Yann Yann’s performance in particular, has been hailed by Chen as a career best for her, and her Golden Horse Best Actress nomination a well-deserved one. “I really admire Yann Yann for having gone through this film,” he says. “It’s a very challenging role because there’s so much sorrow and sadness and pain and struggle encapsulated each time she has to bring to set, and she cries almost every day at the end of the shoot because it’s just so much to bear, and something you have to maintain all day. Across 40 days, she was onset every day for over 12 hours, and it’s always full on for her. There’s so much intensity in her performance, and it’s the toughest character she’s ever played, it’s all very nuanced and contained and you can’t just push it out in one scene. It would mean so much for the acting community in Singapore for her to receive recognition like that, and having worked with her for so long, I really think this is her year.”

“I’m still pleasantly surprised by the number of Golden Horse nominations for this film, and glad that the greater cinematic audience can still latch onto the issues and characters featured and saw the value in what we’re trying to do,” Chen continues. “And of course, I’m also rooting for my best supporting actors – Yang Shibin in particular. He’s a stage actor who’s never been on screen before, and he gave this really memorable performance. Not everyone transitions so well from theatre to film, but he managed to go from the theatrical style to the realist style my film demanded. So yes, I do want my actors to win, plus, it’s also to my credit if they do because it shows I’ve directed them well!”

At this point in time, Chen remains busier than ever, and is currently poised to even direct a 4-part television adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning novel When We Were Orphans for the BBC. “It’s the first of his books to be adapted for TV, and Ishiguro himself was instrumental to getting me onto this project,” explains Chen. “He didn’t want a white, middle-class filmmaker to end up doing this film, and wanted a different point of view, and passed my name to the producers at the BBC. We talked for hours about the project, and it could be very difficult sometimes because it’s such a different style and genre from my usual.”

When We Were Orphans.jpg

But even so, Chen’s heart lies with the Singaporean film community and wanting to continue supporting and developing local work, especially with his film company Giraffe Pictures (which helped release Kirsten Tan’s POP AYE, amongst others). “I’m still very clued in to the young up and coming local filmmakers, and I do watch a lot of their work,” says Chen. “It’s very important for me to keep both my feet on the ground, and help the next generation of filmmakers. Right now, there’s this whole wave of Singapore talent and filmmakers who are intelligent and smart and perceptive, and have these distinct voices. As much as possible, I want to keep playing my part, and enable others to fulfil and make the work they want to.”

“Singapore cinema has been growing from strength to strength,” he adds. “Even beyond my film, you can see Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined has 4 nominations at the Golden Horse awards. It’s a sign of maturity for our cinema and we need to do more. We need to come out and support local film, get over that fear of falling asleep or not understanding the film, and for filmmakers to come out and continue making the stuff they make. It’s often very hard to get funding, and it’s hard when there’s no support because funders don’t want to lose money on films, and that can only change once we come out and really support our local films, whether as funders, telling friends about it, or as consumers at the cinema.”

As to how he thinks Wet Season will go over in Singapore, Chen comments: “I think it’s very important we change the preconception of ‘arthouse’ film. Ilo Ilo was more feel good and accessible, but so is Wet Season, just a little more mature and grounded. I don’t make abstract films, and I think there’s this universality to my films where people can latch on to characters and get this sense of relationships and life.”

“For me, I don’t really have the pressure to supersede my previous work,” he concludes. “But about ensuring that every work I put out I can confront and face and feel is good even years from now. For now at least, both Ilo Ilo and Wet Season make me feel that way, and I can feel proud of both of them.”

Photo Credit: Giraffe Pictures

Wet Season will have its Singapore premiere on 21st November 2019 to open the 2019 Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). It will open commercially on 28th November 2019.

SGIFF 2019 runs from 21st November to 1st December 2019. The full Festival line-up and ticketing details will be announced on 22nd October 2019. For more information on the upcoming 30th edition of SGIFF, visit their website here

 

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