Wet Season (热带雨) review

For F*** Magazine

WET SEASON (热带雨)

Director: Anthony Chen
Cast : Yeo Yann Yann, Koh Jia Ler, Christopher Lee, Yang Shi Bin
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 28 November 2019
Rating: M18

2013’s Ilo Ilo was hailed as one of the best Singaporean films in recent memory, winning awards at international film festivals including Cannes and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards. Critics and filmgoers were keenly watching the film’s young writer-director Anthony Chen to see what he would do next. After executive-producing and co-writing the anthology film Distance, Chen has returned to the director’s chair with Wet Season. This film has already been making the festival rounds, debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival and receiving six nominations for the Golden Horse Awards, winning Best Actress for Yeo Yann Yann.

Ling (Yeo Yann Yann) is a Malaysian-born Chinese language teacher at a secondary school in Singapore. She has been trying for a baby with her husband Andrew (Christopher Lee) for years. Andrew works in finance and is too busy at work or entertaining clients to spend much time with Ling. Ling is also responsible for caring for Andrew’s ailing father-in-law (Yang Shi Bin), a stroke patient. When Ling holds a remedial class in school, only one student, Wei Lun (Koh Jia Ler), shows up. Wei Lun appears to have been neglected by his parents, and Ling gradually takes a liking to Wei Lun, sending him home from school in her car. She also shows up to support Wei Lun at an wushu competition where he is representing the school. Ling and Wei Lun find solace in each other, but they soon become inappropriately close.

Wet Season takes what could easily have been a trashy, sensational premise and approaches it from a very sensitive, thoughtful point of view. The movie spends a lot of time setting up the circumstances surrounding its two main characters, never seeming like it’s racing to a big, dramatic plot point. Malaysian Yeo Yann Yann has repeatedly proven herself as a remarkable, subtle actor, and her performance here is as affecting as ever. Ling’s deep sadness manifests in every gesture, every glance – one can tell that great care was taking in developing the character both by Yeo and writer/director Chen.

Koh Jia Ler’s playfulness and youthful energy serve as a great foil for Yeo’s more subdued performances. Chen does a great job of juxtaposing Wei Lun’s immaturity against Ling’s maturity. Both are different characters, and while Ling is better developed, it doesn’t feel like Wei Lun is just a caricature either.

Veteran Chinese theatre actor Yang Shi Bin is remarkably convincing as Ling’s disabled father-in-law. Chen told the press that overseas film journalists thought that he had cast an actual stroke patient in the role.

The more cynical among us might view Wet Season as calibrated to play well at overseas film festivals. Its combination of controversial subject matter with the specificity of the Singapore setting means that to a European or American journalist, it might feel like a textbook critically acclaimed foreign film. That’s not to take anything away from the immense work that Chen and his cast and crew have sunk into this, but the thought was at the very back of this reviewer’s mind.

Ling’s husband Andrew is meant to be an unlikable character, but Christopher Lee’s performance lacks the nuance that his co-stars bring to the table. It sometimes seems like Andrew has wandered out of a Chinese-language drama aired on Channel 8.

The film features beautiful cinematography by Sam Care that enhances the contemplative nature of the movie and emphasises stillness, but it’s the sound design and mixing that stands out even more than the visuals. The film’s sound department includes sound designer/supervising sound editor Zhe Wu and production sound mixer/supervising sound editor Li Chi Kuo. As the title suggests, Wet Season is set during a period of high rainfall. The film features no non-diegetic music, such that the rainfall serves as the movie’s soundtrack and as a kind of inner monologue for Ling. It’s a creative decision that serves the story well, enveloping the audience in atmosphere and drawing them into the story.

The challenges faced by the characters in the film are easy for many around the world to relate to, but the setting is deliberately very Singaporean. One of the themes in the film is how students have an aversion to learning Chinese, and how schools place the language as a lower priority than subjects like Mathematics or English. The relationship between Malaysia and Singapore is also touched on, and a subplot involves caring for an elderly relative, a responsibility many Singaporeans undertake. The movie never comes off as preachy, weaving all the issues it addresses into its narrative fabric.

One technique that Chen uses to increase verisimilitude is showing characters on the toilet. This is carried from Ilo Ilo. One wouldn’t usually see a character on the toilet in a movie, so this makes the movie feel more like real life. There is also a scene in which Ling’s father-in-law soils himself; the camera never shying away from the mess.

Wet Season’s premise, coupled with the fact that its protagonists have previously played mother and son, might set tongues wagging, but Chen approaches the subject matter with enough careful nuance. It’s a sad, moving film that rarely goes straight for the tear ducts, and by the time we get to a big, dramatic emotional beat, it is well earned.

Summary: Anthony Chen’s portrait of a forbidden relationship between teacher and student is layered with heart and a sprinkling of humour. The film feels thoroughly authentic and is anchored by its excellent leads, Yeo Yann Yann delivering a powerhouse performance without doing anything overwrought.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Home is calling: Invisible Stories set visit

For inSing

HOME IS CALLING: INVISIBLE STORIES SET VISIT

inSing meets the director and actors of HBO Asia’s new original series on location 

By Jedd Jong

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

HBO Asia has begun principal photography for its latest original series Invisible Stories, which is being shot on location in Singapore. The six-episode half-hour drama series revolves around the lives of everyday people living in the fictional housing estate of Sungei Merah.

The series is created by Singaporean writer-director Ler Jiyuan, who worked with a team of local writers to realise Invisible Stories. Ler has directed episodes of local TV series and TV films including Zero Calling, Code of Law and Gone Case, and recently wrote and directed episodes of Grisse for HBO Asia.

Invisible Stories is produced by Singapore-based company Birdmandog as part of HBO Asia’s partnership with Singapore’s Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA).

Showrunner and director Ler Jiyuan. Photo credit: HBO Asia

“80% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats. I myself grew up in an HDB flat in the 90s, a three-room flat back when there were still gangsters,” Ler told the press during a break on the set. “My father was a taxi driver. Invisible Stories is the universe I came out from as a child,” he revealed, adding “I feel that it will be interesting for international audiences to see this side of Singapore, the non-crazy rich side.”

The stories being told in the series include that of a taxi driver who moonlights as a spiritual medium by night, and a banker who is a family man but lives a secret double life by night. The series features a regional cast comprising actors from Singapore, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

inSing was on set at a coffeeshop or ‘kopitiam’ in Chong Pang, a quintessentially Singapore location. This is the partial setting for the first episode, starring Yeo Yann Yann. Malaysian actress Yeo has starred in notable Singaporean films including 881, Singapore Dreaming and Ilo Ilo. In Invisible Stories, Yeo plays Lian, a single mother working at the drinks stall in a coffee shop to support her autistic teenage son.

Ler wrote the role of Lian with Yeo in mind. She was initially hesitant to take on the role, for fear of it being too emotionally taxing, but later accepted. “The first thing I felt is that it would be very heavy for me. As a mother, I am also struggling with my child and my work,” Yeo confessed. “I’m juggling between taking care of my child and my work, I was trying to avoid something that was so heavy for myself. I was scared, because once you’re in it, you have to dig [into] the pain. Of course, there’s joy, but the pain is so much deeper.”

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Yeo said she was inspired by an interview she watched in which actress Meryl Streep said she felt a responsibility to take on roles that would give voice to the voiceless. Yeo said of participating in a project that will represent Singapore on a global stage, “I’m proud of it, and I’m proud of giving voices to the unheard.”

Photo credit: HBO Asia

Yeo was sporting bruises, including bite-marks, that she assured us were mostly makeup. Yeo had shot a scene the previous day in which Lian’s son Brian had a meltdown. “A meltdown for an autistic child is when they don’t feel right. You take something away from them, they have a meltdown,” Yeo explained. The cast worked closely with a special education teacher to ensure that the life of an autistic person and their caregiver were portrayed sensitively and accurately. “Many things that we perform were approved by the advisor. The advisor was very happy that we didn’t over-exaggerate it or under-represent it,” Yeo said.

Director Ler Jiyuan. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

The issue of caring for an autistic child hits close to home for director Ler, who has two cousins with non-verbal autism. “I put myself in the shoes of a caretaker, Ler said, adding that “for them, it’s a really hardcore commitment. It’s emotionally draining, financially draining, especially for those of the lower rungs of society.” He emphasised that “the story is a very painful one, but one I still feel is necessary for us to see.”

Devin Pan on the set of Invisible Stories. Photo credit: HBO Asia

Taiwanese actor Devin Pan plays Brian, Lian’s son. Speaking in Mandarin, Pan called the meltdown scene the “most challenging scene” he has ever filmed. “You need to be very physically and mentally strong to make it through scenes like that,” he said.

Yeo Yann Yann and Devin Pan. Photo credit: HBO Asia

Yeo and Pan worked during rehearsals to form the mother-son bond their characters must share, and it carried over into the interviews with Pan holding Yeo’s hand when he felt nervous about being surrounded by the media. Speaking about working with Yeo, Pan said “I think this is the most fortunate thing that’s happened to me since I’ve left Taiwan to take on this job.” Both Yeo and Pan have a theatre background and he commented that they have similar personalities, saying “We’re both relatively carefree and easy-going but we focus on the performance, so we find it easy to play off each other when we’re acting.”

The series was born out of a desire to tell the stories of people whom we pass by on the street everyday in Singapore and wouldn’t necessarily give a second glance. “Every coffeeshop has a drinks stall aunty, but you never really think about who she is,” Ler explained. “That’s what I’m trying to do, to tell a story about people like that whom you’d walk by and never really notice; in regular dramas they’d just be extras,” he remarked.

Photo credit: HBO Asia

Yeo gained a new appreciation for what it’s like to work at a drinks stall in a coffeeshop. “Even just staying there for five minutes is not an easy thing, it’s very hot inside, it’s really not easy,” she said.

Yeo also took her seven-year-old daughter onto the HDB flat set the previous night. “She saw us struggling, melting down, fighting,” Yeo said. “I asked her ‘are you afraid of it?’ and she said ‘no, it’s fake!’” Yeo said her daughter does have some interest in acting, but that her dream job is an art teacher.

Ler Jiyuan, Yeo Yann Yann and Devin Pan on the set of Invisible Stories. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Invisible Stories is set to premiere later this year on HBO Asia’s on-air, online and on-demand platforms.

 

Lee Chong Wei movie review

For inSing

LEE CHONG WEI

Director : Teng Bee
Cast : Tosh Chan, Jake Eng, Mark Lee, Yeo Yann Yann, Ashley Hua, Rosyam Nor, Freddie Wong, Uriah See, Agnes Lim
Genre : Sports, drama
Run Time : 2h 5m
Opens : 15 March 2018
Rating : PG

Celebrated Malaysian badminton player and one-time world #1 Lee Chong Wei gets his story told on the big screen in this biopic.

It is 1992, and young Lee Chong Wei (Jake Eng) watches with rapt attention as Malaysian badminton players Razif and Jalani Sidek play in the Olympic semi-finals. Chong Wei hails from the town of Bukit Mertajam in North Malaysia. Coming from a poor family, he’s unable to afford his own racquet. Chong Wei’s mother Kim Chooi encourages Chong Wei’s desire to play badminton, while his father Ah Chai (Mark Lee) is initially adamant against it, insisting that his son focus on his studies.

 

Chong Wei trains under local coach Teh Peng Huat (Freddie Wong), eventually becoming a well-known badminton player in Bukit Mertajam. He is later enrolled in the Badminton Academy of Malaysia, under the tutelage of national team coach Misbun Sidek (Rosyam Nor). Pushing himself to his limits, Chong Wei overcomes various setbacks and climbs the ranks. In the meantime, he develops affections for Wong Mew Choo (Ashley Hua), a fellow student at the academy. In the 2004 Thomas Cup, Chong Wei first faces off against China’s Lin Dan, beginning what will be one of the fiercest rivalries in badminton history.

The film is based on Chong Wei’s autobiography Dare to be a Champion. Lee Chong Wei follows established sports movie formula almost to the letter: our hero emerges from humble beginnings, is an underdog who becomes a champion through talent and determination, faces obstacles, and trains under a wise mentor or two. For the most part, director Teng Bee makes this formula work.

Lee Chong Wei is an unapologetically patriotic Malaysian film, but its subject is more than deserving of hometown hero status. The film brims with earnestness and is determined to tell a moving, personal story. The result is slick and the production values are high – barring one scene set in London which was obviously shot in Malaysia. The badminton sequences are shot and edited such that we believe the actors really are that good, and there’s no shortage of rousing moments.

While the plot beats might be familiar to anyone who’s watched a couple of sports movies, the movie possesses an authenticity which gives it a novelty factor when compared with the Hollywood sports dramas we’re accustomed to. The unique linguistic landscape of Malaysia is reflected accurately via dialogue in Bahasa Melayu, the Chinese dialects of Hokkien and Mandarin, and English. This seems like a film that will travel well, bolstered by its combination of specificity to Malaysia and the universal appeal of a true underdog tale.

Chong Wei is portrayed by newcomers Jake Eng as a boy and Tosh Chan as a young adult. Eng has a winsome quality without coming off as overly precocious or twee, while Chan’s withdrawn awkwardness enhances Chong Wei’s underdog quality. Both actors display remarkable commitment to the physicality, and more than hold their own in the badminton scenes. There are moments when Chan’s lack of acting experience comes through and he’s not quite able to fully shoulder the dramatic heft, but both actors’ portrayals of Chong Wei coalesce into a commendable whole.

The film’s supporting players are praiseworthy. Yeo Yann Yann’s portrayal of a nurturing mother coping with trying circumstances is credible, while Mark Lee gets to show off range that is rarely demanded of him in his mostly broad comedic roles.

Rosyam Nor delivers a layered, sensitive performance as Misbun. He’s tough on Chong Wei, but is also personally invested in his pupil’s journey. Freddie Wong is an amiable presence as Teh Peng Huat, who functions as a source of comfort and assurance to Chong Wei. Even as he gains success and recognition, Chong Wei’s formative years in Bukit Mertajam remain a key part of him, and his first coach represents that.

Uriah See has fun sneering his way through the part of Yang Kun Chen, Chong Wei’s haughty rival at the academy. This character appears to be fictional, or at least a composite. It veers on being cartoony, but Kun Chen does go through a progression of sorts.

Ashley Hua is sweet but remains firmly in the background as the designated love interest. The parts of the film depicting Chong Wei and Mew Choo’s romance are the cheesiest but still have their charm.

As is to be expected of films like this, Lee Chong Wei could stand to be subtler. The musical score too obviously announces what the audience is supposed to feel. The scenes of the Badminton academy board members deliberating Chong Wei’s future also feel too much like the Jedi Council deciding whether Anakin Skywalker is too old to begin his training.

While Lee Chong Wei is not without its flaws and is largely predictable, the movie represents a significant achievement for the Malaysian film industry. It’s an inspiring crowd-pleaser that draws its hero with more nuance than one might expect, even as it is a paean towards him.

The film’s chest-thumping and flag waving is somewhat cheesy, but also endearing, because unlike the typical jingoism scene in blockbuster movies, it’s not presented in a military context. Beyond the technically accomplished filmmaking, there’s a heartfelt warmth that gives Lee Chong Wei its winning edge.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong