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Film Review: Wet Season dir. Anthony Chen (SGIFF 2019)

Anthony Chen’s sophomore feature draws out a storm of a performance from Yeo Yann Yann deserving of thunderous applause.  

For many Singaporeans, the tropical monsoon season is a time of contradictions. While the drop in temperature offers a welcome respite from the year-round equatorial heat, the need to remain indoors or brave the torrential rains often leads to dour, reflective moods at the same time. 

Playing on the wealth of emotions such stormy weather evokes, Anthony Chen’s sophomore feature film Wet Season coalesces these complicated feelings into the human condition, represented by one woman going through a seemingly endless flood of challenges. Played by Yeo Yann Yann, Ling is a middle-aged teacher at an all-boys secondary school in Singapore. As a Chinese teacher, she is constantly reminded by her peers what she teaches isn’t quite as important as the other academic subjects, and that she is essentially a second class citizen. And even then, she’s not even a citizen, as a Malaysian yet to receive permanent residence, a foreigner on Singapore soil.

On the homefront, Ling is married to a man (Christopher Lee) who seems to care less and less for her as the days go by, while she divides her time between work and being a good in-law, caring for her wheelchair-bound, stroke survivor father-in-law (Yang Shi Bin) and attending her sister-in-law’s ‘man yue’ baby parties. When we are introduced to her in the opening scene, she is sitting in her car, injecting herself as part of an ongoing IVF procedure, after years of being unable to conceive and just about losing all hope for a child of her own. Televisions broadcast news that a riot is about to break out in Malaysia, and for Ling, nowhere feels like home anymore. Most, if not all of these situations only get worse for her as the film progresses.

But amidst this monumental burden of living, Ling finds solace in Wei Lun (Koh Jia Ler, who previously played Yann Yann’s son in Ilo Ilo), one of the students in her afterschool remedial classes who’s developed an obvious crush on her. As she finds out more about his family situation, his love for wushu, and begins personally sending him home after remedial, there’s a spark of forbidden romance between teacher and student that only gets more complicated the more intertwined they become in each other’s lives.

Wet Season is a film characterised by its practicality. Shots and scenes last just as long as they have to, with naturalistic dialogue whose length brings out the relationship between Ling and the other characters so well. It’s understandable that the initial conversations between Ling and Wei Lun are terse affairs, as figures in unequal positions of power, while Ling’s interactions with her father-in-law are one-sided affairs (Yang Shi Bin does an incredible job of filling the silence with just a sigh or a grunt in response). There is no score attached to the film; all we have is the sound of the environment, and in particular of course, the downpour of rain at some of the film’s most crucial moments.

Eschewing the more Hollywood-style of rapid cuts, Chen instead often indulges in the art of the long take, allowing us to immerse ourselves as we witness scenes in real time; Wei Lun’s wushu competition performance is one such stellar example that allows audiences to appreciate the effort and skill that goes into the sport. There is so much detail that goes into the staging of every scene, from a sad, ironic framed calligraphy for ‘smile’ (笑) at one of Ling’s lowest points, to a subtle, quick peek into Ling’s wallet as she struggles to find cash to pay the caretaker. Chen’s cinematography is honed to a point where the framing of each subject evokes an immediate, emotional response and understanding of its characters, making Wet Season the work of an auteur.

Assisted by the almost constant rain across the film, acting as a manifestation and amplifier of Ling’s mood and burgeoning darkness that lies at the edge of each scene, Wet Season results in a career best performance for Yeo Yann Yann. While often known for her feisty nature and sharpness both offscreen and in previous roles, as Ling, there is a quietude and softness to her role that paints her as a woman on the verge of a breakdown as the odds continue to stack against her. Occupying the triple role of educator, wife and caregiver, the sheer amount of stress Ling is going through is evident on her face each time we cut to her, and only becomes increasingly distressed as the film goes on. This is a role that’s so controlled, so built up, that the few times Ling finally breaks, it sends a shock to the system watching her release all the pent up frustration, sorrow and anger in a single moment.

And it’s no wonder then we find ourselves rooting for Ling’s happiness, whether she finds it in the briefest of  moments with Wei Lun, or when she finally takes a stand and lives for herself by making a life-changing decision at the end of the film. Wet Season plays out like an impending storm, where the dark clouds gather as Ling sinks further into her troubles. But the rain that ensues turns out not to be something to be afraid of, but to be welcomed as a rain of mercy. As Wei Lun hugs Ling in an open field during the film’s denouement, the rain soaks both of them through while soft light breaks out over the tall buildings of the central business district, and we know that the sun eventually can and will come out, with hope emerging from the unlikeliest of events at times.

Wet Season is a remarkable follow-up to Chen’s debut in Ilo Ilo, but taking on a far more mature topic and protagonist in dealing with the expectations and struggles of a middle-aged woman in the modern world. This is a film that examines a woman pushed to her limits, and showcases a rare sensitivity in filmmaking that brings out stellar performances from all its cast members, and reminds viewers that as many obstacles life throws into our path, even when we’re at the end of our rope, there is a brighter future that lies ahead still, as long as we’re willing to forge on till the clouds clear and the wet season draws to a close at last.

Photo Credit: Giraffe Pictures

Wet Season premiered in Singapore on 21st November 2019 as the opening film of 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. For more information, visit their website here

 

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