Critics sometimes place patronising expectations on a director’s second film, especially if the director happens to be young and to have gained some level of success with their first effort. Even the word ‘sophomore’ – commonly used in the United States to describe a second-year high school or college student, but also more broadly to denote the second work of an artist – comes from a place of condescension. It’s a compound derived from the Greek word sophos, meaning ‘wise’, and moros, meaning ‘foolish’: a ‘wise fool’ who sits somewhere between the two poles, and for whom the jury’s still out on which way they’ll gravitate.
When one speaks of a ‘sophomore’ film, the word is usually used in a descriptive sense (a fancier way of saying ‘second’ film), but can also carry connotations more flattering than its etymology might suggest. It’s no coincidence that the term is reserved for directors exclusively, as far as cinema is concerned; identifying a sophomore film as such is also a tacit recognition of the director’s claim to authorship. Moreover, the underlying assumption is often that the director displayed in their earlier work a notable degree of personal vision or style, an auteurist sensibility against which the follow-up can be measured. This can help form a convenient framework for critics to approach the film – and probably for some directors too, for that matter – and establish some guidelines for assessing it. Does it build upon the concerns explored in the first film? What does it do that the last one didn’t, and what does it do better or worse? Is a directorial identity being developed? Is this filmmaker the real deal?
This might all be beside the point for those who don’t subscribe to such criteria, and there are plenty of directors who have compelled critics to assess their work on its own terms rather than by leaning on what came before it for guidance. But in the case of young Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen, his sophomore effort Wet Season (2019) proves an ideal candidate to be considered alongside his earlier work. It’s not just that there are now two films to be compared, or that there was indeed a lot of expectation placed on Chen himself, who was only twenty-nine when his remarkable feature debut Ilo Ilo (2013)For more on Ilo Ilo, see Sarah Ward, ‘Ilo Ilo and the Eternal Change’, Metro, no. 179, Summer 2014, pp. 50–2. became the first Singaporean film to win the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival; it’s rather because of how neatly Wet Season aligns with the critical framework described above. Its balance of continuity and change – the way it self-consciously revisits key aspects of Ilo Ilo and announces its departure from others – is so apparent that it practically begs to be evaluated on those terms.
Set against the backdrop of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Ilo Ilo portrays a middle-class family on the brink of upheaval. There’s heavily pregnant mother Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann), whose job at a shipping firm entails the unpleasant task of scripting termination letters; father Teck (Chen Tianwen), a barely competent sales rep who loses big on the stock market, then later loses his job, and keeps both facts hidden from his wife; and their ten-year-old son, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), every bit a spoiled brat whose delinquent tendencies ensure that he’s a regular fixture in the principal’s office. The dynamic of the family shifts, for better and for worse, after the arrival of Terry (Angeli Bayani), a live-in maid from the Philippines who has moved to Singapore in search of work and carries her own share of problems with stoic grace. Though not without its faults, Ilo Ilo remains a triumph of contemporary realist filmmaking, full of empathy and compassion for its troubled characters. It also offers a convincing snapshot of a nation at a point in history – a messy, modern, multicultural society with complex class and ethnic relations, populated by ordinary people trying to cope with both their everyday struggles and global forces outside their control.
Wet Season likewise focuses on a family, albeit one in a far worse state of disrepair than that featured in Ilo Ilo. Yeo returns as protagonist Ling, a fortysomething Malaysian Chinese woman who teaches Mandarin at a prestigious boys school. Her husband, Andrew (Christopher Lee), is perpetually away at the office, or so he claims; either way, he does little to hide the fact that he’d rather be anywhere but home, where his elderly and bedridden father (Yang Shi Bin) requires constant care after having suffered a stroke. Despite being stuck in a loveless marriage, Ling longs to have a child – she’s been trying for eight years, to no avail – and undergoes painful and invasive IVF treatments without any support from her husband. Her circumstances aren’t much better at work, where she struggles to win respect as a teacher because the subject she teaches is held in low regard by students and colleagues alike. But things take a turn when one of her students, Wei Lun (Koh) – a naive, somewhat studious teenager whose workaholic parents are also absent from his life – develops an infatuation for her. What starts with an innocuous offer of a lift home turns quickly into private lessons and home visits, evolving into a relationship that hovers dangerously between companionship, romance and exploitation. Whatever Ling’s intentions, the social and legal repercussions for her would be particularly severe in a conservative society such as Singapore, and she’s barely able to reach for the brakes when the relationship begins to get out of control.
The continuities across Ilo Ilo and Wet Season are as clear and extensive as those in any two first films by a director in recent memory. These include, but are not limited to: the casting of Koh and Yeo in almost identical roles;Although the recasting of these actors in Wet Season may appear to be one of the director’s more straightforward choices, Koh was cast only after Chen was unable to find a suitable actor in an extensive casting process involving auditions and workshops with hundreds of high school candidates; Yeo was likewise offered her role after a lengthy search for an actress in Singapore and Malaysia failed to yield results. See Panos Kotzathanasis, ‘Interview with Anthony Chen: It Is Quite Interesting How You Go Searching for a Film and Is [sic] the Film That Actually Finds You’, Asian Movie Pulse, 10 November 2019, <https://asianmoviepulse.com/2019/11/interview-with-anthony-chen-it-is-quite-interesting-how-you-go-searching-for-a-film-and-is-the-film-that-actually-finds-you/>, accessed 17 February 2021.
the emphasis on a single middle-class family and particularly the mother–son relationship, or an equivalent to it; a narrative that oscillates between domestic and work life, involving characters who unwittingly become surrogate family members for others; themes of fertility and childbirth, embodied by the pregnant lead of Ilo Ilo and the protagonist who yearns to become so in Wet Season; and the inclusion of similar, sometimes near-identical, locations (a school, an apartment, numerous car interiors) and events (a funeral, a child getting injured, a punch-up at school, a character returning overseas). There are strong continuities behind the scenes, too. Both Ilo Ilo and Wet Season took Chen several years to write and cast,According to Chen, the screenplays for Ilo Ilo and Wet Season took two and three years to write, respectively. Over 8000 children were considered for the son’s role in Ilo Ilo, while the casting process for Wet Season spanned almost a year-and-a-half. See Kotzathanasis, ibid. and were made under comparable conditions in terms of their scale and budget. They’ve also shared similar accolades: both films were submitted as Singapore’s official entry for the Academy Awards in their respective years, while Yeo won Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Horse Awards for her performance in Ilo Ilo, upgrading that honour to Best Actress for her subsequent role in Wet Season.
Where Wet Season diverges – and diverges sharply – from its predecessor is the newfound precision with which Chen shapes and presents the narrative. Visually speaking, the most noticeable shift is in how the intimate, handheld cinematography of Ilo Ilo has been jettisoned in favour of a tightly controlled mise en scène. In contrast to the looseness and seeming spontaneity of the earlier film, the images in Wet Season have been meticulously lit and framed, with a strong preference for fixed wide shots and long takes that keep a distance from its characters.This shift in aesthetic coincides with a change of cinematographer, with Sam Care taking on the role held by Benoit Soler on the earlier film. When Chen moves the camera, he tends to do so with elegantly precise pans and tracking shots that seem to have been planned to the pixel. It all amounts to a refined, austere visual approach that might appear to be the work of a totally different filmmaker if it were viewed without context.
This shift in style occurs in tandem with a shift in tone. Whereas Ilo Ilo is in fact a lighter and more humorous film than the earlier description of it might suggest, there’s no mistaking Wet Season’s sombre tone, which asserts itself from the outset. The chief ingredient here is the rain alluded to in the title; Wet Season is set during Singapore’s north-east monsoon period, which usually starts around December and sees several weeks of continuous downpour envelop the island nation. Not since Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole (1998) has rain been so pervasive in a film; there’s barely a scene in which it isn’t seen, heard or otherwise felt. When combined with the film’s overcast palette and its protagonist’s weary demeanour – she does appear in literally every scene – this rain imbues the film with a dreariness that persists until its final moments. Not content with using rain as a motif or atmospheric device, however, Chen carefully calibrates it to suit the requirements of the narrative, adjusting its flow like a tap to reflect the characters’ emotional states. From the very opening scene, when Ling drives to work in heavy rain as the radio warns of the severe weather to come, Wet Season already feels like a film that will funnel the viewer towards a climactic scene set in a downpour. When that scene comes, the rain announces its arrival with impeccable timing – no coincidence, of course, because Chen summoned every drop with the aid of a rain machine.The film was actually shot in May, one of Singapore’s hottest months. See Matthaeus Choo, ‘Making It Rain in May – A Behind-the-scenes Look at Wet Season’, Sinema, 28 November 2019,<https://www.sinema.sg/2019/11/28/wet-season-behind-the-scenes/>, accessed 17 February 2021.
This degree of control and precision isn’t confined to the film’s style and tone, nor to Chen’s working methods; it’s part of Wet Season’s DNA, and infuses every aspect of its narrative, themes and characters. There’s a small but wonderful detail in Ilo Ilo when Koh’s character picks up a tube of wrapping paper while browsing a stationery store and starts twirling it rapidly in his hands, martial arts–style, before he’s told off by the shopkeeper. It’s a surprising moment because of the spontaneity of the action and the skill with which it’s performed; it’s as if Chen learned of the actor’s party trick during the shooting of the scene and decided, there and then, that he had to make room for it. And it’s all the more memorable because of its brevity. The scene casually strolls on without dwelling on it, allowing it to become absorbed into the film as just one of many such fleeting moments that pass, having no bearing whatsoever on the narrative, but leaving behind an indelible trace all the same. But, above all, it seems to exist in the film for the simple pleasure of being seen and appreciated for its own sake.
It’s a kind of moment that would likely have never found a place in Wet Season, a film that feels so precisely engineered that the inclusion of anything remotely ambiguous, imperfect or unscripted – or even seemingly so – might cause a rupture. Almost every detail in the film has been preordained to connect with a specific idea, to achieve a specific purpose. For example, Ling’s brother sells durians – the pungent fruit popular in South-East Asia, where it’s widely (and dubiously) claimed to possess aphrodisiac properties – and he gifts a bag of the product to his sister when he drops by unannounced at her workplace. Conveniently, the visit coincides with an after-school remedial class in which Wei Lun becomes the sole remaining student after the other pupils sneak off home; he and Ling end up sitting and sharing the durian together in a scene that spells out where their relationship is heading in no uncertain terms. Similarly, Wei Lun competes in wushu (Chinese martial arts), and Ling’s father-in-law’s favourite pastime is to watch wuxia films (Chinese martial arts films) on TV. Their shared interest is never acknowledged out loud, but it implicitly helps develop a bond between them. It’s a bond that never reaches any great depth, because it doesn’t need to; it’s important only insofar as it helps facilitate Ling and Wei Lun’s more significant relationship.
The film’s overlapping themes of family, parenthood and childbirth are likewise embedded into each major character, to the extent that their function within this schema threatens to be their defining trait. Wei Lun becomes a substitute partner for Ling in her husband’s absence, as well as a surrogate son in the absence of a child – an impossible dynamic reiterated by the taboo nature of their teacher–student relationship. Andrew, presumably frustrated with his wife’s ongoing infertility issues, has an affair with a younger single mother. And Ling’s ailing father-in-law needs perpetual care, not unlike an infant, as is made plain when Ling cleans his soiled sheets and replaces his nappy. The parallels between old age and early childhood in the latter example remain unobtrusive enough, being a fairly common idea to begin with – that is, until Chen overindulges in the metaphor: Ling has a nightmare in which she finds a crying infant in her father-in-law’s bed, then wakes to find that he’s died in his sleep.
These false notes occur with a tedious regularity across the film but also within individual scenes. When asked about her husband’s absence at a celebration for his one-month-old niece, Ling relays his excuse: he’s playing golf with a client. Almost immediately, rain begins to pour outside the window in the depth of the shot. ‘Golf? In the rain?’ a bemused family member asks, which gives Ling pause about her husband’s actual whereabouts. A few seconds later, Ling is passed the baby to hold and it promptly begins to cry in her arms; as she cradles it awkwardly, unsure of what to do, a couple of young children dash past and rattle her, before it’s whisked away from her embrace. On paper, it’s a perfectly efficient scene wherein everything contributes to the film’s dramatic and thematic purpose. The setting adds padding to the film’s familial themes, while a narrative pretext is created for the rain motif to be foregrounded once more; each occurrence gives Ling’s struggles material shape and nudges her towards a conflict with Andrew, which, in turn, will nudge her and Wei Lun closer together. Regardless, the scene feels clumsy in its density. Too many small things occur too quickly, one after the other, all of which connect too conveniently and too transparently to the film’s design. Particularly so because the entire scene is choreographed within a single, static wide shot; although simple and efficient, its precision has the unintended effect of signposting its own subtlety, thereby negating it.
In this manner, practically every detail in Wet Season is given some sort of relational significance beyond itself – in order to trigger a narrative consequence down the track, or to slot flawlessly into a thematic tapestry – with the result being that the architecture of the screenplay becomes far more perceptible than the images and sounds produced from it. Make no mistake, Chen crowbarred in his fair share of contrivances in Ilo Ilo, too: a fluky lottery win plays a role in the plot, for example, and he goes to town on the film’s fertility motif by including chickens, eggs, a Tamagotchi and other such imagery. Yet these still sit comfortably within the realist framework of Ilo Ilo – or, perhaps, they’re able to be camouflaged by it – because the world it creates is dynamic and unpredictable enough to accommodate them from time to time, and they’re never afforded enough emphasis to impede credibility or register as sleights of hand. Wet Season, on the other hand, is a film built entirely around artifice, and the control and precision through which its world is represented only serve to pronounce this fact. The film’s rigour is at odds with its realist aspirations.
To the extent that it both confirms certain auteurist traits and establishes new paths to follow, Wet Season is a model sophomore film. It possesses many admirable qualities that haven’t been mentioned: for example, the performances, as in Ilo Ilo, are almost uniformly excellent, and Chen’s grasp of mise en scène and composition reveals a filmmaker with a level of formal sophistication that wasn’t present in the earlier film, despite all its virtues. The film also contains some intriguing subtext, making subtle observations about Singaporean nationalism and the intricacies of gender and ethnic relations in the country. Alongside peers such as Boo Junfeng, Ken Kwek and Ho Tzu Nyen,Along with these names, Chen belongs to a generation of young, independent, film school–trained directors that emerged in Singapore in the mid 2000s. They followed in the footsteps of Eric Khoo, who singlehandedly spearheaded a revival of his nation’s cinema in the 1990s with the cheaply made indie Mee Pok Man (1995). See Raphaël Millet, ‘The Revival of Singaporean Cinema 1995–2014’, BiblioAsia, vol. 11, no. 1, 2015, pp. 24–31. Chen has continued to shine a spotlight on some unattractive truths, countering the official image of a carefree, cosmopolitan nation that is dutifully reproduced by more commercial counterparts.
In spite of all this, Wet Season remains a film stifled by its own precision: the reality it depicts is never able to assert itself with conviction because it isn’t given ample opportunity to breathe its own air. Everything is guided by the filmmaker’s hand and nothing is permitted to go to waste; yet a film that purports to depict a convincing reality requires some waste for this reality to be convincing in the first place. Chen has recently announced that he’ll again reunite his two lead actors for a pandemic-set drama, labelling it as the third film in a ‘growing up’ trilogy and already inviting weighty expectations by doing so.See Andreas Wiseman, ‘Anthony Chen Re-teams with Wet Season Actors on Pandemic-set Drama We Are All Strangers, Details Revealed’, Deadline, 26 January 2021, <https://deadline.com/2021/01/anthony-chen-re-teams-with-wet-season-actors-on-pandemic-set-drama-we-are-all-strangers-details-revealed-1234680437/>, accessed 17 February 2021. When that film comes, it’ll be fascinating to see how much he’s kept and how much he’s left behind – how far he’s stepped in to mould reality, or stepped back to let it take its course.
|1||For more on Ilo Ilo, see Sarah Ward, ‘Ilo Ilo and the Eternal Change’, Metro, no. 179, Summer 2014, pp. 50–2.|
|2||Although the recasting of these actors in Wet Season may appear to be one of the director’s more straightforward choices, Koh was cast only after Chen was unable to find a suitable actor in an extensive casting process involving auditions and workshops with hundreds of high school candidates; Yeo was likewise offered her role after a lengthy search for an actress in Singapore and Malaysia failed to yield results. See Panos Kotzathanasis, ‘Interview with Anthony Chen: It Is Quite Interesting How You Go Searching for a Film and Is [sic] the Film That Actually Finds You’, Asian Movie Pulse, 10 November 2019, <https://asianmoviepulse.com/2019/11/interview-with-anthony-chen-it-is-quite-interesting-how-you-go-searching-for-a-film-and-is-the-film-that-actually-finds-you/>, accessed 17 February 2021.|
|3||According to Chen, the screenplays for Ilo Ilo and Wet Season took two and three years to write, respectively. Over 8000 children were considered for the son’s role in Ilo Ilo, while the casting process for Wet Season spanned almost a year-and-a-half. See Kotzathanasis, ibid.|
|4||This shift in aesthetic coincides with a change of cinematographer, with Sam Care taking on the role held by Benoit Soler on the earlier film.|
|5||The film was actually shot in May, one of Singapore’s hottest months. See Matthaeus Choo, ‘Making It Rain in May – A Behind-the-scenes Look at Wet Season’, Sinema, 28 November 2019,<https://www.sinema.sg/2019/11/28/wet-season-behind-the-scenes/>, accessed 17 February 2021.|
|6||Along with these names, Chen belongs to a generation of young, independent, film school–trained directors that emerged in Singapore in the mid 2000s. They followed in the footsteps of Eric Khoo, who singlehandedly spearheaded a revival of his nation’s cinema in the 1990s with the cheaply made indie Mee Pok Man (1995). See Raphaël Millet, ‘The Revival of Singaporean Cinema 1995–2014’, BiblioAsia, vol. 11, no. 1, 2015, pp. 24–31.|
|7||See Andreas Wiseman, ‘Anthony Chen Re-teams with Wet Season Actors on Pandemic-set Drama We Are All Strangers, Details Revealed’, Deadline, 26 January 2021, <https://deadline.com/2021/01/anthony-chen-re-teams-with-wet-season-actors-on-pandemic-set-drama-we-are-all-strangers-details-revealed-1234680437/>, accessed 17 February 2021.|