With the bittersweet drama “Wet Season,” Singapore writer-director Anthony Chen again proves himself a perceptive observer of life and social class in his tropical nation-state and a sensitive chronicler of issues confronting women. Set during monsoon season, Chen’s delicate, nuanced portrait of the heartbreaks afflicting a dedicated schoolteacher and dutiful wife is suffused with love and humor, and directed with striking maturity and restraint. Like his 2013 debut, the Cannes Camera d’Or-winner “Ilo Ilo,” this sophomore feature draws on details from his personal life and further benefits from the casting of two of that film’s leading players: the luminous Yann Yann Yeo as the vulnerable educator and the vibrant Koh Jia Ler as her student. Further festival action and niche art-house play should follow the world premiere in Toronto’s Platform competition.
Modest, dignified and caring, the late-thirtysomething Ling (Yeo), a native Malaysian, teaches Mandarin to teens at a top boy’s academy, where both she and her subject are undervalued in favor of math and science. In advance of the grade 4 O-levels, she is willing to give remedial work to those most in need, but only the lively Wei Lun (Koh), a competitive martial artist, sticks around to participate.
Meanwhile, on the home front, Ling’s marriage is going through a rough patch. She and her selfish husband Andrew (Christopher Lee) have been trying to conceive for eight years. Now she is undergoing painful IVF treatment and Andrew proves unsupportive; he never bothers to show up at her appointments or when she is ovulating, which only increases Ling’s suspicions that he is having an affair.
Instead of the longed-for infant to look after, Ling has her nonverbal, wheelchair-confined father-in-law (Yang Shi Bin, poignant), whom she tenderly cares for. Helmer Chen subtly underlines the similarities between the earliest and last stages of life as Ling spoon-feeds, bathes and diapers the ailing man. In a poignant dream sequence that augurs dramatic change, she finds a crying baby in his bed.
Ling’s natural kindness and unfulfilled maternal instincts also manifest in her care for Wei Lun, whose long-absent parents have left him alone in an expensive high rise apartment building. When the lad has an accident during his wushu training and is allocated crutches, Ling starts to drive him home. Eventually, her warm attentions start to confuse the lonely lad, who already has a crush on her.
Without artificial-seeming contrivance, Chen masterfully builds resonance through rhyming scenes, repeated images and reoccurring dialogue. A pair of scenes where Ling and Wei Lung share durian fruit charts their growing intimacy. And as they meet weekly in the classroom for the extra lessons, she gradually moves away from her proctor’s desk or from looking out the window to sitting next to him and correcting his mistakes as he makes them.
One of the most affecting parts of the character-driven screenplay is the contrasting way Ling and Wei Lun handle bitter sorrow. While Ling’s days are full of unkind cuts, she is mature enough to handle most of them with equanimity and resilience. Meanwhile, when the brash Wei Lun is faced with a case of unrequited love, he acts out calamitously and wails that his heart hurts. “That’s how it is. You’ll get used to it,” Ling tells him. And that is a painful lesson that he will remember far longer than how to draw the correct Chinese character.
The production package palpably captures the gray light of the wet season, while Sam Care’s intimate lensing makes interesting use of frames within frames in the interiors of cars and homes. The music is all diegetic, appropriate to the scenes.