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)

Pop Aye (Kirsten Tan, 2017)

pop aye posterLife’s crises can take many forms but when they involve elephants it’s usually with a little more distance than in Kristen Tan’s whimsical debut, Pop Aye. A metaphorical return to source, a man entering late middle age tries to reclaim his childhood innocence by walking backwards (with an elephant) but discovers that you really can’t go home again. Man and elephant set off on a classic buddy movie road trip, enjoying a selection of encounters with fellow travellers each with a few lessons to impart.

A man in late middle age, Thana’s (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) carefully crafted life seems to be imploding all at once. The first building he designed, Gardenia Square, was an elegantly appointed modern shopping centre which seemed to perfectly reflect the growing consumerism of the ‘80s. 30 years later his futuristic design is now dated, and Gardenia Square is set for demolition to make way for the next modernist masterpiece ironically titled “Eternity”. If that weren’t depressing enough, the son of Thana’s former partner has taken over the business but has none of his father’s loyalty and is determined to sideline the office’s silly old man through pointedly underhanded ways such as deliberately telling him the wrong time for meetings and depositing the physical 3D model he spent a night at the office finishing with all the other rubbish in a now disused room.

If his work life is failing, Thana’s home life isn’t doing much better. His shopaholic wife, Bo (Penpak Sirikul), has little time for him and when Thana discovers her hidden vibrator, he finally realises he is entirely obsolete in every area of his life. So when he catches sight of a beautiful elephant dressed in elegant attire ready for posing for photos with foreign tourists, Thana has an immediate reaction which takes him right back to his boyhood days spent in the company of family pet, Popeye (Bong). Tracking the elephant down again and singing the cartoon’s famous theme tune to verify his identity, Thana decides to buy him (much to his wife’s horror). Seeing as you can’t really keep a giant elephant in your back garden, Thana decides his destiny is to take Popeye back to his rural village where he believes his uncle will look after him.

Undoubtedly part metaphor, Popeye represents the innocence and natural beauty of pre-modern Thailand – the very qualities Thana feels himself to have betrayed when he chose to leave home in less than ideal circumstances to pursue a “better” life in the big city. Thana got what he wanted. He became successful, wealthy, in some sense fulfilled, but now just when he should be entering a more contented phase of his life it’s all crumbling away from him and his ambivalence about the sacrifice he made as a young man is beginning to resurface. He thinks he can put something right by “rescuing” Popeye and reclaiming these qualities in the process but, as usual, nothing’s quite that simple.

Thana’s flight is as much from the modern world as it is from himself. Feeling unloved, Thana also feels eclipsed by his times, held in contempt by the younger generation whose sleek suits and obvious insincerity are a poor match for his disheveled befuddlement. This is a world in which monks accept Visa and take photos of elephants (which must surely be ten a penny) on their tablets. The city takes you in as quickly as it’ll spit you out, Thana warns a young truck driver, but his rare moment of direct emotional honesty is shrugged off as the rantings of an old man.

Despite the coldness of city life, Thana mostly meets warmhearted people on his journey through the countryside, beginning with a roadside saint who describes himself as being “like a tree” in the way he stays rooted to the spot observing the people and cars going by. Dee, noticing Thana’s blistered feet offers him his flip-flops which he won’t need anymore because he’s going to see his brother in Heaven. After all, even trees have to die someday. Grateful to the man, Thana takes Dee under his wing and vows to help him achieve his final wishes, but his intervention may have unforeseen consequences.

Thana even generates a strange bond with the policemen who arrest him for cluttering up the scenery in his nice middle-class neighbourhood which eventually leads him to a rural bar where he seems to meet a kindred spirit in Jenny – a melancholy transgender woman with a longstanding resentment of the bar’s resident “hostess”. Despite hitting it off with Jenny who seems to understand his particular pain, Thana disappoints himself by ending up in a humiliating, unsolicited situation with the bar girl but finds the equally disappointed Jenny forgiving and still willing to help a fellow traveller in need even if, as seems to be the case in much of his life, Thana has allowed himself to be bamboozled into doing something he didn’t really want to do.

At the end of his long, strange journey, Thana finds his illusions shattered, his romantic dream of his childhood home exposed as a mix of memory, nostalgia and idealism. Thana ends up where he started, only with a little more clarity and a new trend towards acceptance rather than defiance. He may think of Popeye merely as the manifestation of the innocence he sacrificed in childhood, but Popeye is his own elephant with his own ideas about his future which might or might not include Thana. Ending on a slightly upbeat note in which Thana is perhaps not as unloved as he believed himself to be, Pop Aye is charming odyssey through middle-age malaise set against the beautiful Thai landscape and told with a whimsical, melancholy humour.


Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)