Wet Season (热带雨, Anthony Chen, 2019)

West season posterA middle-aged woman and teenage boy meet at opposite ends of loneliness only for their frustrated connection to end in a destructive act of misplaced desires in Anthony Chen’s acutely observed melodrama, Wet Season (热带雨, Rèdài Yù). Reuniting with Ilo Ilo’s Yeo Yann Yann and Koh Jia Ler, Chen spins a differing tale of fracturing families as his heroine, a perpetual outsider, finds escape in simulacrum but fails to realise the implications of her attempt to nurture a lonely child.

A Mandarin teacher at a local high school, Ling (Yeo Yann Yann) has been undergoing intensive IVF treatment with her emotionally distant husband, Andrew (Christopher Lee Meng Soon), for the last eight years. Repeated disappointments have placed a strain on their relationship and it seems to Ling that Andrew has already given up, rarely coming with her to the clinic and drawing away from her physically and emotionally. Though they have a housekeeper to help during the day, Ling is also the primary carer for Andrew’s bedridden father (Yang Shi Bin) who, despite his kindness and inability to communicate directly, displays only contempt for his son’s continuing moral cowardice.

Unappreciated at home, Ling fares little better in her professional life. It’s clear that no-one takes Chinese language terribly seriously as an academic subject and she remains isolated at school as a Malaysian Mandarin speaker in a largely Anglophone environment with a rather old-fashioned colonial perspective that English is the only useful language. She tries her best to teach her disinterested students, but finds them uncooperative save one young boy, Wei Lun (Koh Jia Ler), who develops a sudden interest in Chinese after imprinting on Ling when she offers to drive him home after running into him at the hospital and discovering no one was coming to fetch him.

Wei Lun’s parents are of the absentee kind, but apparently very keen that he do well in Chinese so he can eventually do business in China. The only student to turn up for remedial classes, Wei Lun starts getting a lot of individual attention, something that arouses the suspicion of a nosy neighbour in his apartment building who also happens to be a chemistry teacher at the school. The pair grow closer with Ling introducing him to her father-in-law who also takes to the boy, allowing him to fill a painful absence at the family table as the son and grandson they never had while he gains the loving attention of a devoted family ready to support him and celebrate his successes.

Yet brought together by shared loneliness, there’s an essential conflict in their differing desires as Ling remains, perhaps wilfully, oblivious to Wei Lun’s obvious crush which runs to something awkwardly maternal and deeper than your average teenage fixation on a sympathetic teacher. As the storms intensify, they seem set on a destructive collision course, approaching the same problem from opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide.

Battling her internalised sense of failure as a wife and mother in her inability to bear a child along with her professional irrelevance as a teacher of “unnecessary” Chinese, Ling finds validation in Wei Lun’s obvious need, allowing herself to feel “wanted” but perhaps misinterpreting that desire in Wei Lun’s adolescent confusion in which the familial and the romantic become hopelessly blurred. Momentary lapse aside, Ling remains essentially maternal, hoping to comfort Wei Lun as he endures his first heartbreak. “My heart hurts”, he tells her, “That’s how it is” she explains to him sadly, “you’ll get used it”.

Stormy weather and reports of civil unrest in Malaysia as an embittered populace rises up against state corruption echo Ling’s sense of anxious hopelessness as she attempts to find accommodation with life’s disappointments, her imploding marriage, and the impossibility of escape. For her at least the storm clouds eventually lift and the rainy season comes to an end giving way to a brighter future and a new start born of the total destruction of the old. Chen’s tale of misplaced desires and ill-defined relationships may be an overfamiliar one, but handled with care and universal empathy. Refusing judgment, Chen’s camera observes its fragile protagonists as they seek escape from their pain and loneliness through the illusion of connection while the storm inside intensifies. Having endured the rains, Ling rediscovers the light, claiming her right to happiness and leaving the wet season far behind.


Wet Season was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Land Imagined (幻土, Yeo Siew Hua, 2018)

A Land Imagined posterAs the world gets bigger and smaller at the same time, it’s as well to be asking on whose labour these new lands are being forged. Yeo Siew Hua’s Locarno Golden Leopard winner A Land Imagined (幻土, Huàn Tǔ) attempts to do just that in digging deep into the reclaimed land that has made the island of Singapore, an economic powerhouse with a poor record in human rights, 22% bigger than it was in 1965. A migrant worker goes missing and no one really cares except for an insomniac policeman who dreams himself into a kind of alternate reality which is both existential nightmare and melancholy meditation on the rampant amorality of modern day capitalism.

Lok (Peter Yu), a hangdog middle-aged detective, is charged with looking for Wang Bi Cheng (Liu Xiaoyi), a missing migrant worker from China. Just who it was that noticed Wang’s absence is only latterly explained and in suitably ambiguous fashion, but the fact remains that there is an empty space where a man named Wang used to be and Lok is the man charged with resolving that space no matter who might or might not be interested. We discover that Wang was injured on the job, almost sacked and then reprieved to drive the workers’ bus where he befriended a worker from Bangladesh, Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico), who later disappeared sending Wang on his own mirrored missing persons case in which he begins to suspect something very bad may have happened to his friend.

Despite his presumably long years on the force and world weary bearing, Lok is refreshingly uncynical for a police detective but apparently extremely naive about the city in which he lives. Stepping into the world of Wang Bi Cheng, he is shocked to discover that people live “like this” – several men crammed into in tiny bed bug infested rooms so brightly lit from outside that it’s difficult to believe that anyone gets any sleep at all. Wang, in any case, like Lok did not sleep and gradually migrated over to the 24hr internet cafe across the way where he developed a fondness for the spiky proprietress, Mindy (Luna Kwok), while repeatedly dying in videogames and being trolled by a mysterious messenger who may or may not have information about his missing friend.

Like Lok, Wang Bi Cheng cannot sleep but lives in a waking dream – one in which he envisages his own absence and the two police detectives who will search for him, not because they care but because it’s their job and they’re good at it. Men like Wang are the invisible, ghostly presence that makes this kind of relentless progress possible yet they are also disposable, fodder for an unscrupulous and uncaring machine. Asked if it’s possible that Wang and his friend Ajit simply left, the foreman’s son Jason (Jack Tan ) answers that it’s not because the company keeps the men’s passports, adding a sheepish “for their own protection, in case they lose them” on realising the various ways he has just incriminated himself.

Yeo opens with a brief and largely unrelated sequence of a young Chinese migrant worker climbing a tower in his bright orange overalls. Later Lok reads a newspaper report about this same man who tried to launch a protest in having been denied his pay and forced to endure dangerous and unethical working conditions. Meanwhile, Mindy the internet cafe girl, is forced to resort to taking money for sex acts in order to make ends meet. Like Wang, she dreams of escape, of the right to simply go somewhere else without the hassle of visas and passports. Wang jokes that the sand that built the reclaimed beach they are sitting on came from Malaysia, and that in a sense they have already crossed borders, offering to take Mindy away from all this (for a moment at least) in his (borrowed) truck but knowing that their escape is only a mental exercise in transcending the futility of their precarious existences.

Indeed, Yeo seems to be saying that Singapore itself is a “land imagined” – constantly creating and recreating itself with repeated images of modernity. One could even read its artificial territorial expansion as reshaping of its mental landscape while all this progress is dependent on the exploitation of wayfarers like Wang and Ajit wooed by the promises of wages higher than in their home countries but left with little protection and entirely at the mercy of their unscrupulous employers. Yet a strange kind of affinity arises between the lost souls of Lok and Wang, united in a common dreamscape born of sleeplessness and lit by the anxious neon of rain-drenched noir as they pursue their parallel quests, looking for each other and themselves but finding only elusive shadows of half-remembered men dreaming themselves out of existential misery.


A Land Imagined screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 20, 7pm at AMC River East 21 where director Yeo Siew Hua will be present for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)