Film Review: Wet Season | 热带雨 (2019)

In the last decade, hardly any Singaporean director has gained more worldwide recognition and critical acclaim than writer director Anthony Chen. In 2013, Chen made history when he won the coveted Camera d’Or at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival for his debut feature Ilo Ilo, becoming the first Singaporean to win an award for a feature film at the festival. 

Closer to home, the film went on to win 4 awards at the Golden Horse Awards, including Best Feature Film and Best New Director, beating out the likes of Wong Kar-wai and Jia Zhangke. At the time, Chen was merely 29 years of age. Given its widespread critical acclaim, Ilo Ilo left many itching to see what the young director would do next. 

Now, after a 6 year hiatus, Chen makes his long awaited return with his sophomore feature, Wet Season. After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the film has made its way across the world, bagging award after award at various film festivals. Last week, Chen brought his film home, with its premiere at the Capitol theatre opening the 30th Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). 

Ilo Ilo alums, Yeo Yann Yann and Koh Jia Ler make notable returns. Yeo’s role in this film is a far cry from the temperamental mother she played in Ilo Ilo. Here, she plays a gentle-hearted Malaysian Chinese language teacher, Ling, whose crumbling marriage at home can only be matched by the ostracisation she faces in school. Koh plays her student, Wei Lun, with whom she develops a close bond over the course of the film. 

Yeo and Kohs’ respective portrayals of a repressed teacher and her deeply infatuated student is nothing short of stellar. More recently, both actors garnered nominations for their performances at this year’s Golden Horse Awards, with Yeo winning Best Actress––a remarkable follow up to her Best Supporting Actress win for Ilo Ilo 6 years ago. 

In school, the subject Ling teaches is constantly sidelined by a system which only pretends to take it seriously. At home, she balances her time between caring for her ailing Father-in-law and hopelessly trying to reconnect with her husband, Andrew, as played by Christopher Lee Ming-Shun. After 8 years of marriage, Ling clings on to the hope that conceiving a child would save their relationship. The substitute is her bedridden father-in-law, played with brilliant nuance by theatre veteran Yang Shi Bin. Ling tends to him much like she would an infant. In one of the most literal comparisons, she fantasises a child taking his place on a deathbed that so closely resembles a cot. 

Yet, the role the Father-in-law plays as a surrogate child is more of a lifeline than that of a saviour. In the few interactions Ling has with her husband, they exclusively discuss their shared care for him. Without him, they would have no excuse to remain together.

Ling also wrestles between a Singapore identity and her native Malaysian one. She yearns for home, which in the film, is in the midst of violent protests in view of the forthcoming election. Her duty to her family fuels her inability to return, along with feelings of displacement and disconnect from her present surroundings. 

Consequently, Singapore is presented as stagnant and cold, with a composition overwhelmed with mellow hues of blue, green and grey. Chen paints the country as an almost surgical setting, populated with hostile city goers who constantly place Ling in their crosshairs. Even the intimate act of conceiving a child is reduced to an In vitro fertilisation (IVF) procedure. Whenever characters are not being hostile, they compensate by being socially and emotionally distant. 

Oddly enough, those closest to Ling are often the most distant. Her husband, Andrew, would sooner spend his time drinking with a client than have dinner with his own father and wife. He’s framed as detached, almost robotic in his interactions –– the product of a system driven by progress. The same could be said for the school principal and chemistry teacher whom Ling frequents. Between their superficial words of concern, they drone on about personal success, job promotions and money. While these insecurities are played for humour, it’s hard to deny that they are strikingly Singaporean. Perhaps these characters are Chen’s satirical way of capturing the Bourgeoisie that most of us cling so desperately to. 

Ling’s feelings of displacement are mirrored by Wei Lun’s disconnect from his family and peers. In school, he’s the subject of bullying and harassment. At home, he’s alienated by his parents, who are always overseas for weeks on end. Whether he’s participating in a Wushu championship, or going to the hospital, they are never seen. Even in Wei Lun’s own home, there are more pictures of Jackie Chan than there are pictures of his own family. In fact, his parents’ indefinite absence is the very catalyst for Wei Lun’s relationship with Ling. His character is one who yearns for affirmation, and it is Ling who quickly becomes a provider. 

While the city and its inhabitants are drenched in a grey gloom, Wei Lun’s boisterous charm gives Ling and her life a much needed splash of colour. Whether he’s upset or infatuated, Wei Lun isn’t afraid of expressing it. The way he wears his heart on his sleeve starkly contrasts Andrew, who would much rather cling onto his pride than risk being emotionally vulnerable. Interestingly, one of the only times we see colour outside the sombre monochromatic palette is when Wei Lun dons his bold, red Wushu attire. 

In the end, I chose not to see this as a romantic narrative as many viewers have already postulated. I'd argue Wei Lun ultimately realises that Ling is not so much a romantic partner as she is a surrogate parent. As for Ling, her journey leads her to the disillusionment of the Singapore dream, and the realisation that her capacity to be a mother is not determined by her ability to birth a child. 

At a recent Q and A session at a screening for Ilo Ilo, Chen expressed his hope for Singaporeans to be more empathetic and compassionate, especially towards one another. Between his two feature films, I believe Wet Season is his most vocal materialisation of this hope. Perhaps this film is a warning for how disconnected we’ve become in the pursuit of personal success. Or perhaps this is Chen’s rallying cry for us to be less of a stranger in our own home.

Regardless, Chen’s intimate portrayal of this unorthodox relationship truly speaks volumes for our innate desire to feel belonged and validated in an otherwise cold and despondent city. 

- Charlie Chua
Previous Post Next Post

Contact Form