'Wet Season': Film Review | TIFF 2019

TIFF
A poignantly drawn if heavily restrained affair.

Camera d’Or winner Anthony Chen's second feature portrays the forbidden romance between a high school teacher and one of her students.

A student-teacher romance that’s so slow-burn it almost never flares up, Wet Season marks a skillfully observant if somewhat tepid and overwrought sophomore effort from Singaporean director Anthony Chen, whose first feature Ilo Ilo won the Camera d’Or in Cannes.

Indeed, the title of this tight-lipped study in marital woes and intergenerational love is indicative of a film that can feel weighed down by its own soggy seriousness, even if it draws sharp characterizations along with a disparaging critique of Singapore’s sexist upper-class citizenry. Premiering in Toronto’s Platform competition, Wet Season could see further fest action and a few pickups abroad, especially in Europe. But it’s unlikely to find the same audience as Chen’s debut, which grossed close to $1 million at home.

Set during monsoon time, when torrential rains sweep over the city and leave everyone soaked to the bone, the story follows 40ish teacher Ling (the excellent Yann Yann Yeo), who gives Mandarin classes at a local high school for rich kids. With students and staff indifferent to her work — “It’s just Chinese,” the headmaster tells her at one point — Ling’s private life is no better, with a husband (Christopher Lee — not the Dracula one) forever away at the office, an aging father-in-law (Yang Shi Bin) in need of constant care and an ongoing and very invasive IVF procedure that is not yielding results.

Chen certainly stacks the deck against his heroine, presenting her as a foreigner (she’s Malaysian) persevering both personally and professionally, yet failing to succeed in either case. The setup, which lasts for more than an hour, has an almost Haneke-esque tone to it (The Piano Teacher especially comes to mind), with Ling suffering quiet humiliation at home and derision from the majority of her students.

That is, except for Wei Lun (Koh Jia Ler), a puppy-eyed pupil who grows infatuated with his teacher early on and then slowly but surely makes that crush obvious. As the two begin to spend increasing amounts of time together, during afterschool tutoring sessions that end with Ling driving Wei Lun home, it’s clear where their relationship is headed, though the film takes its precious time to get there.

You can’t criticize Chen for drawing out the affair as much as possible, providing a super-slow buildup for what we, and the characters, have all been waiting for. Singapore isn’t, say, France (where, in case you forgot, the current president is married to his high school drama teacher), and in a country of strict mores and rigid gender divisions, Ling could be completely shunned for her behavior, if not sent to prison.

Yet if Chen's Ilo Ilo humorously picked apart Singapore’s suffocating class culture, Wet Season can seem much more obvious and lumbering, moving in a foreseeable direction and overdoing it on the heaviness — such as the use of rain to constantly symbolize Ling’s growing despair, or, in one case, a character’s death. The weather metaphor is utilized even more deliberately in the finale, which feels like a letdown given the long lead-in, while resolving Ling’s dilemma in an all-too simplistic manner.

Where Wet Season proves more successful is in the way it depicts the different factors that drive Ling and Wei Lun together — including how they both lead solitary home lives, with the latter’s parents never once seen — and what keeps them apart, which has as much to do with social and legal issues as it does with their diverging levels of maturity.

Wei Lun, who’s winningly portrayed by Ilo Ilo star Koh, comes across as your typically shy teenager at first. But as we learn more about the ardent Jackie Chan fan and kung fu (or wushu, as it’s called here) champion, we see how, like many sensitive boys his age, he tends to wear his heart on his sleeve. It’s almost too late when Ling realizes what she’s gotten herself into, and her one major offense may not be breaking the school rules but breaking Wei Lun’s heart. For all her efforts in the classroom, it looks like Ling finally taught her favorite student a lesson. But it’s a painful one.  

Production company: Giraffe Pictures
Cast: Yann Yann Yeo, Koh Jia Ler, Christopher Lee, Yang Shi Bin
Director-screenwriter: Anthony Chen
Producers: Anthony Chen, Tan Si En, Huang Wenhong
Executive producers: Des Tan, Xie Meng, Peter Bithos, Jennifer Batty, Bryan Seah, Jianbin Zhang, Leong Sze Hian, Gina Lau
Director of photography: Sam Care
Production designer: Soon Yung Chow
Editors: Hoping Chen, Joanne Cheong
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Platform)
Sales: UTA (U.S.); Memento Films International, Giraffe Pictures (non-U.S.)

In Mandarin, English
103 minutes