More tales of emotional desperation from Anthony Chen, Wet Season follows 2013’s Ilo Ilo, using a couple of the same actors from his brilliant debut to squeeze a single drop of comfort from a scenario that would have been a full-bore histrionic melodrama in other hands.
The returning actors are Koh Jia Ler, only 12 years old when he played the vile, utterly spoiled child in 2013, so about 18/19 in this film, as an attentive diligent student. Also back is Yeo Yann Yann, who was the vile child’s bitch of a mother in Ilo Ilo, and is now playing a thoughtful, dedicated teacher. Both are chalk and cheese transformations.
Dysfunctional family life remains Chen’s concern, though, with the majority of the focus falling on Yeo, as Miss Ling, the teacher at a Singapore school. Ling teaches Chinese, a language the Singaporean kids don’t particularly want to learn, and the school isn’t that interested in teaching. The headmaster, in fact, speaks English whenever possible; Ling never does. At home Ling is caring for her husband’s father, who’s had a stroke so debilitating he has to be manhandled into every new arrangement of clothes, table, bath, toilet, bed. She’s also trying to get pregnant, though her husband has stopped coming with her to the fertility clinic, where the doctor continues to make reassuring noises about “ripening follicles” but the prospect seems bleak. There is talk of using the husband’s frozen sperm at one point, because he can’t be fussed to turn up himself and crank one out for the team. Outside it’s monsoon season, raining almost all the time. The sun never shines. Ling never smiles. You get the picture.
All this explains to some extent the faltering relationship she strikes up with Wei Lun (Koh), the only pupil in her rowdy class of lads who seems interested in learning Chinese, a bit of a loner, seemingly abandoned by too-busy parents, an impassive, never smiling, starey-eyed kid with an interest in kung fu and a bedroom wall plastered with pictures of Jackie Chan, hence the interest in Chinese, perhaps.
What happens between these two is spoiler territory but the question writer/director Chen poses is the same as the one he posed in Ilo Ilo: when exactly is the pressure cooker going to blow? The monsoon acts as a gigantic metaphor – grimly overcast weather giving way to sudden lashing torrents of rain. You can probably guess what I’m hamfistedly hinting at.
Thanks to this hovering, ever-present threat of a howling storm of one sort or another, Chen can take the film as slow as he likes and things never get dull. The questions constantly lurk… “She’s not going to xyz, is she?” or “He’s not thinking of xyz, surely?”
Subtle but deadly in its effect, with relationships laid out in a clear line of ascending importance and dramatic weight – Ling’s mother, her headmaster, a teacher at the school who pops up at inconvenient moments, her husband, her father in law, the boy – this is Ling’s story not Wei Lun’s. She’s as closed down as the overcast sky, movements small, emotions absent, working largely on muscle memory, and Chen and DP Sam Care take pains to shoot her at one remove – from the back of a car, in a mirror, through a doorway – which adds to the sense of disengagement.
It’s an incredibly tidy film, fat-free, filigree in its attention to tiny details, with Yeo and Koh rising to the challenge of playing people who are not in the least demonstrative… until they are.
As for that “single drop of comfort” mentioned up top, it probably isn’t what you think it is. Intrigued? There’s a fix for that.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021