Singapore-born Anthony Chen studied in film schools in Singapore and the UK. His short film “Ah Ma” was awarded the Special Mention for Short Film at Cannes, the first time a Singapore film was awarded at Cannes. His debut feature “Ilo Ilo” won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, while his sophomore feature “Wet Season” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
On the occasion of “Wet Season” screening at Thessaloniki International Film Festival, we speak about his absence from feature filmmaking, casting the same actors again, Singaporean society and many other topics
The first question is the inevitable one. What took you so long?
It takes me very long to write a film. “Ilo Ilo” took me two years to write, this one took me three years. It takes me very long to prepare a film as well. I spent a whole year casting and then another year prepping the film, finding locations and all of that. It does take a long of time for me to make a film. The thing about me is that until I am very sure about everything in the script, the characters and the relationships, every single emotion and beat, I would not start shooting a film.
Of course, during the past few years I have moved on to do a lot of producing, I have produced two films in the last few years, one of them was Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye, and I am a very hands-on producer, so from the development stage, the scriptwriting, all the way to the set during the shooting, I was there all the time.
So, would you say you are a perfectionist?
I think because I was born in April and I am an Aries, and we tend to be like that. I am not sure the word is perfectionist, because I do not believe in perfection, I do not believe that there is a perfect piece of art or a perfect piece of film, but I think I strive to make the best of what I have or make the best possible work at the time of development as an artist.
Why did you choose the specific title?
From the title, you understand that the film is set during the monsoon season in Singapore, so in the film it rains a lot, 80% of the film is set in rain. I have always wanted to include weather elements in my films, which is very hard in Singapore, since we are a tropical country and we do not have seasons, it is the same temperature all year long, 27-32° it is very hot and sunny, we are right in the middle of the equator. The only time the weather changes is during the monsoon, 4-8 weeks in a year it just rains and rains a lot. Very early in the film, I decided I wanted to have the monsoon as the background because rain is very cinematic, very visual but at the same time it is a very suitable device to paint the emotional landscape of the lead in the film and what she is going through. Furthermore, I think it also describes a lot of my feelings and my observations about what Singapore and Singaporean society is right now.
Why did you decide to have the same actors?
Actually, I did not want to cast the same actors. We spent almost one and a half year casting and we ended up with the same actors from “Ilo Ilo”, which even for me it was a surprise. In my first film, we were looking for a 10-11 year old boy and we saw over 8000 children, we went to a lot of schools and in the end we found Koh Jia Ler who was the lead. When I wrote this film, the first thing I told the team was “let’s look for a fresh face, this is a 16-year-old student, let’s find a new kid”. So, we went to a lot of schools, we saw hundreds of teenagers, I did a lot of workshops during weekends and we selected 40-50 of them. After about 8 months, we could not find the right kid that was suitable for this role. One day, I was browsing Instagram, I saw a photo from a TV station, because Jia Ler went and shot a TV drama and I have not met him for a few years and then I saw this picture of him in a school uniform, and I thought that this image looked very suitable, this face is very suitable. Then I showed the picture to my producer and we called him in and he did the rehearsals and the workshops with all the other kids and he was the only one who really sparkled and shined, he was so special. So we decided to cast him and when we did so I knew right away I did not want to cast Yann Yann Yeo, who played his mother in “Ilo Ilo” because I thought it would be too weird for them. So, I went through a lot of actresses, from stage, from TV, from film in Singapore, in Malaysia and we even screen tested a number of them but we could not find the right one. Eventually, I sent the script to Yann Yann and I told her, “I think you are not suitable for this part but why don’t you read the script?” So she read it and she came in and we did some screen tests and we decided that we will make this work.
It is very interesting, because you asked if I was a perfectionist, but over that past few years, I learned more and more that, even though shooting a film is about control, you control the script, where you put the camera, the lighting and all that, but at the same time, sometimes you lose control. You think that you are going to look for something and in the end you spend a whole year casting and end up with the actors you cast before (laughs). It is quite interesting how you go searching for a film and is the film that finds you actually.
Was it weird for them, though?
It was weird, especially for the boy, because in my first film, he was only 11 and it was the first time he was in a movie, and he ended up being very close to the actress; from the first day we started rehearsals, he would call Yann Yann “mommy” and even to this day, he calls her that. I live in London now, and I go to Singapore for my work but I do not see them so often, but from time to time, they still meet up, and he would still call her mommy. That was difficult, because even when we were doing rehearsals or we were on set for “Wet Season”, I was like, “could you stop doing that, could you stop calling her mommy? It is very awkward for all of us”. Eventually I started this rule that he is not allowed to call her mommy on set. But they are both very professional, and in the end, we were all pleased about the way their performances turned out. It was difficult though.
And how about the sex scene? Was that difficult?
Yes. He is a very natural actor, but he is also a very lazy actor. He is the only one who never brings the script on set and he does not bother to do any homework but he is also the only one who never forgets his lines. He does one rehearsal and then he remembers everything by heart, he just gets it! Between the shoots, he is always sleeping. The only time you could see him feeling challenged, thinking it was difficult, was the sex scene. In fact, I had a massive argument with him before we shot the scene, because we rehearsed for the last time and it just did not feel right, and I told him he could not do it like that. He was really unhappy, and he was saying “I don’t know how to do it, show me how to do it” and you could see that for the first time he felt challenged, for the first time he felt it was not as easy as it seems. Eventually, we got through it. When he actually came to the shooting, he was very generous, he just took off his clothes and we shot it, we just did it!
Can you tell me a bit about Yang Shi Bin, who plays the father-in-law? His performance was so natural that I could hardly believe he is an actor.
He is an actor, a very experienced stage actor, but this has been the first time he has been on film. He has been acting in theater since the 1960s, he is probably the oldest actor in Chinese-speaking theater at the moment. He is still working, he is in 4-5 plays every year. A lot of people thought that he was an actual patient. I brought him and the other actors to a hospital where there were a lot of patients like that and they had to observe them for two weeks.
Was the scene that Ling cleans him up difficult? And why did you decide to show this scene in such detail?
I do not find it difficult, I think that is what life is in reality. At some point of your life, you will have to do these things. It is like when you have a baby, you have to clean the baby and when your parents are old or sickly, and every country in the world is dealing with an aging population, there is no denial about it, and we have to deal with it. I just don’t get showing him living into a home or getting someone else coming to take care of him, because I think that is not what life is. My cinema is very much inspired by daily life and that is what I capture in my films. And I do not want to avoid it for the sake of avoiding it.
Why does he watch kung fu movies all the time?
This is a man that cannot move, he is partially paralyzed so his ultimate desire is to move! If he is going to look at stuff every day, he is going to look for stuff from when he was younger and stuff that feature a lot of movement. That is why it so important for me that this man cannot move at all but the kid moves a lot, so it is really important he does martial arts and turning and tossing and has so much energy. The moment he comes into the home, he gives him and the family life again.
The film is about alienation. The protagonists are both very lonely; would you say that this is something very common in the urban centers of the world?
I would like to think that in a lot of modern cities, even though it is very crowded and busy, a lot of people are lonely. In fact, as I have been observing Singapore the last few years, it has become very prosperous, there is a lot of wealth, and is one of the most prosperous Asian countries, but I feel that as a society and a place, it has become much colder, less warm. People do not connect as much as humans any more. I cannot say that for other cities, because I live in London and London is not giving me that feeling, I have a lot of warm connections, even with my neighbors. I worry about Singapore…
Do you think the decline of the institution of family is one of the reasons for this alienation?
You are right. In all my films, I explore what family is. I think the films are almost an extension of the exploration about family. If you look at Ling and see where she lives, you will see a family of three, including her father-in-law and her husband. But the husband is never around, the house is very cold and lifeless, there is no energy, she does not feel any warmth and she has to take care of a very sick old man. But the moment the boy comes into this house, suddenly, the three of them become a family, although they are not connected by blood at all. She is his daughter-in-law, not his daughter, and the boy is not his grandson, but in a way, when you see them eating together, hanging out, it feels like a complete family picture.
It is quite interesting, I think that is why I continue exploring in my work the idea of what family is, what human relationships are, even the relationship between Ling and Wei Lun. Is that really a student-teacher love affair? I think it is more complex than that, I am not sure if it is romantic love. Ling desperately wants to have a child to take care of, and the student is a replacement child she wants to care for? Or is he the replacement husband she needs in her life? The same for the kid, he is forced to be very independent because his parents are very busy and doing business overseas all the time. You can see he has quite a good life, he lives in a nice apartment, but you never see his parents around. So, in a way, is the teacher a replacement mother instead of just a lover? I do not offer easy answers to all these questions; I do continue to explore the ideas of human relationships and family.
Do you think that sex is a way out from this loneliness?
I don’t think that sex is a way out from this loneliness, but I think human touch is. I feel that when someone is so lonely or unloved for so long, whoever gives that someone warmth, that physical warmth of the human body, it is the way we connect in the most purest of ways. I do not think it is the gratification of sex itself but I think it is physical contact. When someone has not been hugged for so long, he just needs warmth from another person and it could come from someone else. A lot of people say that this is just a love affair between a teacher and a student but If you see her, she is very busy, she has to work as a teacher all day and then grade papers and then to take care of her sick father-in law, she has to cook etc. This is a woman with no social life, she cannot be like us, going outside to have a glass wine or watch a movie. So, if there is someone else who will enter her life, it has to be from work. If it is not student, then probably someone else from school, it might be a female teacher and then it becomes a lesbian relationship. I think whoever gives that warmth as a person would enter her life, because this is how we connect.
If the film continued past the actual ending, do you think the two of them would end up together?
I do not think so, it was never meant to be a relationship that would work. I am not even sure if it is romantic love between the two of them.
The film shows that the education now in Singapore is oriented towards math, science and English. Is that the actual case?
I think it has always been like that, because Singapore is a very practical and pragmatic society. Because it is a very small country, we do not have every culture, we do not have natural resources, like mining or forestry, if you drive from one side of Singapore to the other side it will take you an hour. So, from very early on, the only thing that we had is human capital and thus, we have been trying to have students that are strong in math and science because it would be useful in the tech sector and the financial sector. English is the first language in Singapore now because we were a British colony, but what is very sad is although 70% of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese, my grandparents came from China for example, a lot of young Singaporeans cannot speak or write Chinese anymore. Because Chinese will not get you into Oxford or Harvard, it is not seen as that useful in the context of Singapore.
You mean that from the beginning of the educational stage, all lessons are taught in English?
Yes, from the late 70s, the government changed all schools into English schools, so every school teaches all subjects in English. The only time you have Chinese lessons, if you are Chinese of course, is 2-3 times per week and that’s it. Everything else, math, history, geography is taught in English. Singapore is a multiracial society. 70% is Chinese and then we have Malays, Indians who will be also taught their language in school 2-3 times per week. What I am worrying about is the erasing of roots in Singapore. Because, even though we are a migrant society, even though English is our working language, when I look at the young generation of people, when they cannot speak or write Chinese, they are not connected in any way at all, I worry that we will lose the roots, where we come from culturally. I think society is held together because we have roots and when you cut off the roots, it makes me worry about the way this society will continue or progress. How will people connect to each other if they have no roots anymore? We are not British or American, we are in the middle of Asia and every other culture has its cultural identity. In Thailand, they speak Thai, in Indonesia Bahasa, in Malaysia Malay, in Japan Japanese. We are going to be the only country in Asia that speaks English only. It is so weird, so bizarre, it is a colonial language and there’s almost a class conscience in Singapore where if you speak English well, you are of a better clash. It is perceived like that, and in the recent years there has been a huge wave of migration from China, and it is very interesting the way Singaporeans sort of reaffirm their identity to differentiate themselves from the Mainland Chinese, by not speaking Chinese. You are from China, you speak Chinese, I am from Singapore, I do not speak Chinese, I speak English. It is bizarre, weird and quite sad.
Do you think that Singapore is a conservative society?
I think it is a very conservative society. I have realized that for some time, because my mom is very conservative. She went to an English school, in school she was taught in a very liberal way but she is very conservative. The film will open at the end of the month in Singapore and I am very curious what local audiences will think of the film because I am actually very curious what my mom will think of the film. I think she will be very shocked.
If budget was not issue, and you could do whatever you want with a film, what kind of film would you shoot?
Because I live in the UK, one day, if a day comes, I would like to make a Bond movie. I am not interested at all in making a Marvel movie but if there is a Bond film available one day, I would love to make it.
Are you working on any new projects at the moment?
I am writing a few things at the moment. I am working on a film set in Singapore but at the same time I am also developing my first film in China, a Chinese language film. There are a few other English-language projects in the US and the UK which are developing and might go to production next year. I do not know yet, we will see, but when I made my first film, I was thinking whether I will make this a trilogy. And now that I had the same actors again, I think there is going to be a third film.
Will both of them be there?
At least the boy, because I shot him at 11, I shot him again at 17, I think I am going to shoot him again in 21. My “Growing Up” trilogy. I think I will make that film, I have not quite finished working out the story but I think I will finish up this trilogy.