Treading the line between artistic integrity and commercial viability is never easy – especially so in our tiny isle of Singapore. With Wet Season, Anthony Chen establishes his quiet finesse in creating films that strikes a chord with the audience, but bags critical mention and awards to boot.

Chen’s sophomore feature has recently picked up six nominations from this year’s prestigious Golden Horse Awards. They include nods for Best Narrative Feature, Best Director, Best Leading Actress (Yeo Yann Yan), Best Supporting Actor (Koh Jia Ler and Yang Shi Bin), and Best Original Screenplay. If you find familiar names in there, you’ll recognise both Yeo and Koh from Chen’s Ilo Ilo, although one of them has grown up considerably and has a screen presence to reckon with.

Highlighting his gift of astute observations once again on celluloid, Wet Season begins as a marriage crisis between a barren couple, but spins into a wayward relationship in the second half – one that will no doubt have some shifting in their seats. On the surface, it plays out a middle-aged woman’s crumbling identity in the face of social pressure, yet Chen’s expert maneuverings has weaved in points on cultural decay, gender roles, familial bonds, social classism, and of course, the nature of love.

It is the last that unfurls the most beautifully – Yeo’s outward fragility is a dying bloom, that awkwardly embraces Koh’s brash and unexpected innocence – desperate and parasitic, yet nurturing in its own way. And while there are a few moments overplayed to illustrate this theme, the final moments between the two are satisfying and heartfelt – a hallmark of Chen’s continuing ode to humanity, and another showcase of his strength in telling moving, universal stories.

Because even if both films were set in Singapore and revealed an authentic cross-section of locals, Chen has managed to create them as broader tapestries that speak to a global audience, without resorting to exaggerated colloquialism, overt signalling or placing a dragon playground in the middle of it all.

But enough of praise for the young talent, much can be said for the cast as well. Yeo has essentially cornered the market on playing mature women with complex inner psyches, where even banal actions are infused with her brand of rich emotional depth. Under her control, Ling is believably a Chinese language teacher pushed to succumb to her own needs.

Koh shows incredible maturity for all of his 18 years of age, and balances out veteran Yeo in every aspect with Wei Lun – an admirable feat. There’s enough rebelliousness and cheek to reason his abrupt actions, yet a tenderness that keeps us all endeared to his antics. His lines, mostly kept simple, have a loaded quality about them. Even a casual, “Would you like some water?” becomes a moment of gold.

A special mention too to Yang, who plays the stricken elderly father-in-law. The theatre veteran demonstrates his incredible reach in every frame, and his small role contributes heft and an important layer to Ling’s emancipation. 

Chen has certainly struck gold with his casting, and Wet Season shuffles them around like an expert croupier, every move anticipated and full of objectivity. If something can be said that makes the film a little less than sublime, it would be the pacing – especially in the middle portion. With so much themes at hand, it can be forgiven that Chen got a little indulgent, and the husband Andrew’s (Christopher Lee) arc becomes a little flat while being stretched. 

But Chen’s masterful grasp of the medium is never boring. Much of this has to do with his intimate understanding of its many avenues of expression. Through the space in-between he builds up a luxurious mood, one most poetically expressed in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, when Ling’s red pen leaks ink exactly between the words “teacher and student”.

Watch as most of the characters seek shelter in their little pockets from the rain, playing out their stories with earnesty, then be there to witness their wonderful liberation, only realised fully when they step out into the torrent and into thunderous applause.

Rating: 4.5*

If you enjoyed Ilo Ilo, Chen’s latest feature holds much of the same – in all the best possible ways. Strong control, powerful performances, and moving storytelling.

First published: www.movieXclusive.com

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