• Golden Globe Awards

Wet Season (Singapore/Taiwan): Interview with Anthony Chen

Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s second film, Wet Season, deals with the forbidden albeit short-lived love affair between Ling (Yeo Yann Yann), a Malaysian teacher in her late 30s, and her teenage student Wei Lun (Koh Jia Ler) amidst the former’s strained marriage and the latter’s struggle to belong. The story unfolds quietly, all along in synchrony with the heroine’s emotional undertones while she goes through painful fertility treatments, takes care of her disabled father-in-law, and increasingly loses connection to her indifferent husband. Under the catalytic influence of Wei Lun, the film’s gaze turns to her tenuous and initially concealed changes, eventually leading to a complete yet subtle transformation. 
There is no judgment in your film. As a viewer, I understand each character, and by understanding them, I accept them.
It’s important for me to be honest to the story and characters. Being honest and generous to the characters is also allowing them to have flaws. I don’t believe in perfect characters. My films are a celebration of life not only in how good it is but also how f*** up we are as people (laughs). It’s about embracing life, both the good and the bad.
The film poses ambition and material success as represented by the husband, against the pursuit of happiness as enacted by the rest of the characters – the wife, the boy and even the ailing father-in-law. Was it your intention to comment on the question of the meaning of happiness?
For me (the subject) was more about family. What does it mean to be a family? Interestingly, when you look at these three characters – the woman, the boy and the old man – you see three people who are unrelated, but who, somehow, when having a meal together, feel like family. Somehow a sense of union, a sense of happiness is painted. I’m always questioning these things; the definition of relationships, the official and legally recognized relationships.
Would an example be the relationship of the wife to the father-in-law? It changes during the course of the film.
It’s not that it’s changed but that all of a sudden there is new meaning to that relationship. All of a sudden, the three of them – the woman, the boy and the old man – find themselves connected to one another in an odd way. They are not connected by blood … The boy, who is into martial arts and moves all the time, sort of bounces into this household, and disrupts it, gives it new energy.
Your debut ILO ILO, about the relationship of a boy to his nanny, has similar elements. Is there an autobiographical component to your films?
My first film was very much inspired by my own nanny in Singapore whom I had for eight years. For me, it’s not so much about the relationship of a boy and an older woman but about the exploration of how strangers become family; how family can go beyond just the bloodline.
Your film is very feminine in the way that it expresses the subtlety of what goes on undercurrent with your female character especially.
Somehow, I’m drawn to female stories … I’m the kind of man who likes to observe, and I’m very sensitive to the delicate nuances in people. My films tend to play this way as well. They are never made with huge dramatic strokes but (they are built) over quiet tension. The tension lies underneath the skin.
You also make a statement about your heroine’s emancipation. How do you see the place of women in society now? Are there any developments in Singapore that you have observed?
In Singapore, women stand along with men in strong positions, but Singapore is very cosmopolitan. That’s why it’s good to remember that (the character) comes from a village in Malaysia. There is a certain Confucianism in her, she abides by traditional values of loyalty and duty. But eventually, she finds a way out and discovers a way to restart her life.
At the same time, though, you do comment on gender relationships.
In both societies, Western and Eastern, men are the ones who want to be the decision-makers, who want to control the world. But I realized that when s**t really happens when there are real problems, the men are the first to shy away, and leave the women to deal with them … For example, when I was doing research, (I found out that) 50% of the couples who go through several years of fertility treatment with no success, will end up divorcing – because there is so much disappointment and pain a marriage can withstand. If you ask me, I don’t think the character of the husband is just heartless; I feel that he doesn’t even know how to confront the issue, he’s just sort of hiding from the problem. And I see that all the time. When my dad got into trouble with relatives or money – it was my mom who stepped in and solved the problems and protected the kids. I think that under (women’s) facade of gentleness, what you get is resilience, which is what men show on the outside but quickly lose when push comes to shove … I don’t think that men – no matter how mature they are – ever fully grow up. I have a lot of admiration for women for their strength, the amount of pain that they can take, (their ability) to withstand all the difficulties and pressures of this world. I think it’s very hard, in our world, to make female stories as a man.
Why do you say that?
You have to deal with a lot of doubt – “what makes you think that you know women?”, and “you will never know what it feels to be a woman”.
I see you as an “ambidextrous” director – you are able to use both, the male and female gaze
Every time a female audience member responds positively to my film, that is when I feel true satisfaction. It’s hard for me to defend my own work because I’m not a woman. So, it’s women that help validate it.