Interview with Director Anthony Chen & Actress Yeo Yann Yann: Humanity Still Has to Uphold Hope


CineCina: I watched Wet Season yesterday, and I’ve also watched Ilo Ilo, which is another cooperation between you and Yann Yann. I feel that there is a coherence between the two films that you two have worked together on, but it has changed from a mother-child relationship to a teacher-student relationship. I want to ask a question about the script first. Did the teacher-student relationship already exist in the prototype of the script, or did you have other ideas? Because it’s also talking about a mother.

Chen: Yes, I think the most important thing about this film is actually the story of this woman’s mentality, which is more important than the part of she and her student. In fact, when I started the script, I always wanted to write about a woman who is about to step into or has already stepped into her 40s, about how she faces it, whether it is marriage, family, or a setback or bottleneck in career. In particular, in Chinese or Asian society, when a woman reaches a certain age, she has to get married and have children; in other words, she must satisfy the society’s “expectation” of her. So it is following this main idea that the parts about students and teacher-student relationship were later added. But I don’t think I would fully regard it as a kind of so-called teacher-student relationship. I think humanity, or human itself… when you need comfort in your heart, whoever reaches out and gives you that kind of warmth would create an emotional intersection between you and him.


CineCina: If we put the two films together, the family is the core of both stories. So such a (family) environment should be familiar to you, or some life experiences you know in the larger context?

Chen: I would not say that I am completely familiar with it, but I feel that I am very sensitive to the family, or to the emotions and relationships between people in our Chinese society and families. When I grew up, my grandfathers on both sides had passed away, so I didn’t actually have an environment like that where I lived together with the elderly. But I don’t need to have such a life experience. Whether I go to a friend’s house or ride on a bus, I always have such observations.


CineCina: Then I have a question for Yann Yann. You two have cooperated many times, and you were really pregnant when you appeared in Ilo Ilo. How did you prepare for this role this time?

Yeo: This is the third time I have worked with him. The first time was a short film. The second time was Ilo Ilo. This time, the preparation time was very short, only about one month. The first thing to prepare was to turn me from a woman always with short hair into one with long hair. (laugh)

Chen: You see, her hair is very short, so in fact she always wears a wig in the film.


CineCina: So it is your requirement that this role should have long hair?

Chen: Yes.


CineCina: Because in Ilo Ilo, the most impressive scene is that when she leaves, he (the main male character, also played by Koh Jia Ler) cuts a hair …

Yeo: But the hair is Angeli Bayani’s. (Chen: That Filipino maid’s.)


CineCina: So the hair is…

Chen: In fact, I have a deep sense of touch with people. So in my film, whether it’s Ilo Ilo or this one, whether it’s their talking or their appearance, there is a kind of feeling that I have been trying to capture in the film. Whether it’s the elderly or the principal, I have a deep impression of their look, their posture, their social background or class status, so this is what I actually want to do (to capture this feeling).

Yeo: This hairstyle, as well as the makeup, is really a lot of work. Before we started shooting, we went to look for our makeup artists and hairstylists.

Chen: You see our makeup artist is behind us. She spent a lot of time doing many different tests, because in fact her problem is that what I want in the film—

Yeo: My problem… (laugh)

Chen: No, no. I am saying that what I asked for in the film is very naked, so I wanted to make people feel that she is not wearing heavy makeup but still has an aura of elegance. So we made a lot of effort in this respect.

Yeo: I think here I also proved that as an actress, you can really change your temperament completely. We are really all chameleons. What I usually look like is different from what I did when I was filming. It needs some transformation. After the transformation, I believe that every actor can make it, that is, to make the character truly embodied. That is, it becomes more necessary in front of the camera to do everything as if I were doing it every day. Every glance and every smile. But as an actress, I know very well that I don’t usually look like this. (laugh)


CineCina: Koh Jia Ler (leading actor in Wet Season) was still a child when he was in Ilo Ilo, and now he has grown up…

Chen: Yes, he has. He was 17 when we were shooting the film, and now he’s 18.


CineCina: For the audience, when they see Koh Jia Ler (in Wet Season), they would feel like their relationship with a familiar person has suddenly changed…

Chen: But for many people, they might not know he is Jia Ler.


CineCina: Yes. In fact, the two images of Yann Yann are also very different. The image of a pregnant woman in the previous film and that of a teacher in this film. It is not so easy to figure out that they are the same person, and you need to look carefully. (Yeo: Yes.) So did Jia Ler participate in any other works between these two films?

Chen: He appeared in a TV drama before, but I didn’t watch it myself, and he told me, “It’s bad, please don’t watch it.” (laugh)

Yeo: He was studying at that time because he was only 9 years old when he was working with us on Ilo Ilo.

Chen: No, he was 11.

Yeo: At the age of 11, he would have to prepare for a big exam the following year to enter middle school. So he was actually studying for a long time. When filming Ilo Ilo, I thought this kid actor had a good instinct. He had a very pure and direct intuition. In Wet Season, he still keeps this innocent instinct.

Chen: In fact, we were quite surprised.


CineCina: I feel that his personality is coherent, that is, I really feel that it is the same person who has grown up. I don’t know if that’s right, but in some aspects, such as speaking…

Chen: I don’t think he’s changed his way of speaking…


CineCina: Maybe it’s a sense of recklessness?

Chen: Maybe a little bit. But I feel that what we see for ourselves is that Jia Ler is an actor who does not need to read the script. Everyone else might still be memorizing the lines, but he’d never brought the script from the first day to the last day. He was very lazy, and as long as there is any time he would sleep on the side. But when you called him, you didn’t need to review with him, all the lines were already in his mind.

Yeo: All feelings are over there.

Chen: Yes, he has a kind of… I don’t know, he really has a talent. He has never acted since Ilo Ilo. That’s more than six years, and for many young people, this is usually erased, but he still keeps it. When we look at him, we see something very simple. And this is very rare in Singapore, because many children in Singapore mature early and are forced to say, “If I ask you a question, I am expecting a kind of answer to be the standard answer.” But he always has such a kind of innocence. I think if he keeps it, maybe he can continue acting.


CineCina: Both films develop slowly from a simple relationship—it is not necessarily spoiled but sublimated—to more complicated things, but they are still very kind …

Chen: I would say that my films are all Confucian. Some friends in Taiwan who have read my script or watched my film would say, “It’s strange that you grew up in Singapore but your works give a more Chinese feeling than us.”


CineCina: Very traditional?

Chen: Yes, and I don’t know why. We had a very western education in Singapore since childhood, and our country was also a former British colony. I have been speaking English since I was a child. I also read English newspapers at home and did not read Chinese newspapers. But not knowing why, some of my potential values are still very traditional, very Chinese, and very Confucian. It’s like the film I made—although it touches some moral taboos, it is still very modest.


CineCina: Is it also because of this “tradition” that you choose to let the protagonist be a Chinese teacher, and your film is also making a comment on learning Chinese and learning English?

Chen: I think this is my expression of my attitude towards the young people in Singapore or the Chinese of this generation and the current environment. In fact, I think it’s quite sad that there are a lot of students now, such as those you see in the film, whether they are elementary or middle school students or even some young children of those who have migrated from China to Singapore in recent years, they only speak English in Singapore and are a bit reluctant to speak Chinese, or are (only) interested in Chinese textbooks and some Chinese cultures. I really feel that people without roots have no sense of being. I am quite worried about this; it is a big problem in Singapore.


CineCina: The teacher finally returns to Malaysia in Wet Season, and in Ilo Ilo, the Filipino maid also goes home. My understanding is that there is also a feeling of foreigners. All those who work or live in Singapore need to return to their home in the end.

Chen: Your example is actually valid, but I think for the audience in Singapore and Malaysia, it tells a very subtle (Yeo: tangled) relationship between Singapore and Malaysia that has been lasting for so many years. In fact, many Malaysians come to work in Singapore, but you will find that many Malaysians will not change their nationality to Singaporean. Although you live here, although you make money here, although you are married here, you may not feel that Singapore is your hometown or home.

Yeo: There is a feeling of “root” rather than “home”… a feeling of home-“town”.

Chen: Yes, it is a feeling of home-“town”. But my observation over the years is that many Malaysians, including my other producer who has worked in Singapore for almost 25 years, still have the identity of “Malaysian” and see it as very personal. It is a subtle relationship. I think the audience in Singapore and Malaysia may feel more emotional about this part.


CineCina: There is a very impressive sequence in Wet Season: the dream where she (the heroine) wakes up, walks to her father-in-law’s room, and finds a child over there. Can you talk about your idea of this sequence? I saw it changed to handheld from the beginning, so the whole photography may feel different.

Chen: Yes, because it is a dream. And I think it represents something that this woman has always wanted, a hope that she wants to seize. Going through so many difficulties, she finally gets it. For me, that dream must have a change in terms of the film language. This is what I have discussed with photographers since the beginning.


CineCina: This is a surreal part in the film. It is also like a cycle, because the old man later dies.

Chen: Yes.


CineCina: Then I would like to ask Yann Yann, are there any scenes that have impressed you? For us, it might be the scene at the student’s home. The other one is the scene of burning paper money; there is an obvious emotional exposure.

Yeo: Yes, an outlet. It’s like a sudden burst. The filming was pretty hard because there was never a way to vent that emotion.

Chen: Because it is very depressing.

Yeo: Yes! (laugh)

Chen: It may be the most depressing character she has ever played in her life.

Yeo: After this film, I really wanted to play a character who is very outgoing and vents her emotions. During filming… I was deeply moved by the scene where my father-in-law dies.

Chen: It is after the dream.


CineCina: You just call him…

Chen: Yes, and it is completely an over-the-shoulder shot. And that scene was designed like this at the beginning to be a long take, and—

Yeo: Actually I don’t know how much he cut out in the end. I haven’t seen the film yet.

Chen: Today is the first time she sees this film.

Yeo: Yes. During shooting, basically every day I was like standing on a cliff. I don’t know where my beliefs and principles have gone in the past 20 years. What exactly am I doing? Where have the things that I was sure and confident about gone? This was the most painful thing during the filming of Wet Season.

Chen: And this film is actually really hard for the leading actress. We filmed for 40 days, and she had her part every day. In many cases, other actors, such as the father-in-law, the husband, and the child, might go home after half a day or take a few days off. But for her, it was 12 hours a day, and each scene was very restrained, and each scene needed emotionally… Although it is depressed, there are a lot of things rolling inside. So I think it must be hard.


CineCina: There are also many scenes where she stays alone. For example, when she has an injection in the car, and after she takes care of the elderly at home, she ends up being alone, because the husband does not come back. These also make up a test of the actress’s performance.

Yeo: Thank you. (laugh)


CineCina: I think this character is understandable, and I can understand why she would later make such a decision. Another question is about the martial arts elements in the film. There is a kind of echoing between the child’s practice of martial arts and the father-in-law’s watching King Hu(’s film) at home—

Chen: This decision is based on two reasons. The first is that when I chose to use Jia Ler, Jia Ler started to practice martial arts when he was about eight years old in elementary school. Later, he has not been practicing that often. We asked him to train, because there is a match in the film, and the character wins the gold medal. So he must continue training (to a level where) he can win prizes.


CineCina: So was this in the original script, or was it changed according to the actor?

Chen: The original script itself did not include martial arts. But after it was added, I wanted to make a symbolic tribute to Chinese films in my film. So why did I choose King Hu’s Come Drink with Me and A Touch of Zen? That’s because I think he is the best of Chinese film and martial arts movies. So I actually use this to echo the part of martial arts. And of course, all you see is an old man who can’t move at all. But what he sees can always move. He is connected to this child, and a kind of emotion is generated, just like that between grandpa and grandson. Such an immobile old man has always wanted to move. What he watches are martial arts films, and this child is very active and loves to fight. His intervention has brought a new motivation to the old man.


CineCina: There is also a scene near the end. When this teacher uses her last pregnancy test stick, she laughs, but in a “blank” way, you can’t see her but only a door. I don’t know if you have an answer or any requirements for the performance, and what kind of effect you want to show.

Chen: I remember what we wrote in the script is “not knowing whether to laugh or cry”—“not knowing whether to laugh or cry at the God’s joke”— the script is written like this, so it is really difficult for her to act because that’s what it is. And I hope it brings about a feeling…

Yeo: Do you want to talk about how many days the filming of this scene took? (laugh)

Chen: It took a long time! And yes, because she must have a feeling of laughter, joy, and surprise. In this depression, there is also a kind of sorrow of sympathizing with herself. It is really difficult to be happy and sad at the same time. So I always feel that many of my favorite films, good films, their emotions are not so singular; they must have many layers, or have an ambiguous feeling. I hope that the film, no matter the so-called ending or every scene in it, always have something like this, rather than the straightforward “This is the emotion of the film. This is what I want you to feel.” I occasionally teach at film schools recently. In fact, a class I often teach recently is actually three words, “leaving blank space.” And I think this is also an atmosphere or a kind of temperament that we Chinese people have actually had for so many years—leaving blank space. If you look at ink painting or calligraphy, it will always have a space for the audience, viewers, and readers to fill it up… My biggest problem with many Chinese films today is that film as an art tells stories with images, giving a lot of space to the audience to imagine, think, or interact; but many Asian or Chinese movies nowadays do not leave blank space, and are too straightforward. Everything is very straightforwardly explained in dialogue. So I still hope that the blank space is preserved in the images and performances of the film. To me, blank space is really the essence of our culture for thousands of years.


CineCina: And in terms of performance, it might be “implicit” rather than “blank.”

Chen: Well, it’s a kind of restraint, a kind of indirectness. I think the film has really detailed requirements for performance.


CineCina: Do you have any examples to share?

Chen: Just like the example that Yann Yann just gave, she has only a figure viewed from behind in the whole scene. But through the emotions in her choking and crying, her faint call of father-in-law, this figure is very touching. I don’t need a close-up shot, and I don’t have to see her tears or anything… For me, many of the things in this film that I want to do are like this.

Yeo: I feel that… I haven’t watched it yet, but during filming, I felt that it had a sense of Ozu’s films. “Crying” is something that doesn’t need direct (depiction); it’s a kind of reflection, rather than telling you directly. So when he told me to turn around completely, I was actually disappointed. (laugh)

Chen: Each scene was repeatedly shot for many times for our film.

Yeo: What is the highest record?

Chen: 33.

Yeo: We were satisfied when it reached 32. The 33rd was just for fun.

Chen: And we used the 30th in the end.


CineCina: Which scene was it?

Chen: The last scene. The very last shot of her smile. We repeated 33 times for this simple smile; that shot does not even have any lines.


CineCina: My last question is about the title Wet Season. The whole film has a cold tone of color, if I get it right…

Chen: But there is sunlight in the end.


CineCina: Yes, there is sunlight in the end. So the ending is also a “blank space,” asking the audience to imagine if she would really have a child. The sunlight is a kind of hope.

Chen: Yes, and I hope there is hope at the end of my film. I am still an optimist, not a pessimist. So no matter how much I have experienced in life, I think humanity still has to uphold hope. Although it is not a “happy ending” thing, I still hope that my film ends with sunshine and hope. Since you are talking about the word “wet,” I think there are two ways to look at it. It can represent the state of mind of this woman. Of course, from a more macro perspective, I think it represents my feeling about Singapore now.


CineCina: The scene of their embrace is followed by a zoomed-out, making the audience see the skyline behind.

Chen: Yes, I think Singapore makes me feel a little nervous and cold now. Because I don’t live in Singapore now; I live abroad, in the UK. I feel that in recent years, especially in the past ten years, Singapore is becoming less and less warm. Then I hope, and I look forward to Singapore becoming warmer. In contrast, I think Malaysia is warmer. (laugh)


CineCina: I am very glad to have a conversation with you two, and I wish everything goes well with the premiere tonight. Thank you both!

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