Anthony Chen has made only two feature films in his career. The first one, Ilo Ilo, became the only Singapore feature film to win the Camera d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, with a premiere that concluded with a 15-minute standing ovation from a crowd far removed from the film’s context and premise. The second, Wet Season, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, already has six nominations for the upcoming 56th Golden Horse Awards, including Best Director and Best Narrative Feature. The 34-year-old may only have two feature films to his name, but those films have made that name shimmer with superlatives.
Chen freely admits though that his name is also frequently associated with rather less pleasant descriptors like “stubborn”, “difficult to work with”, “demanding” and “so intense”. While filming said award-winning semi-autobiographical Ilo Ilo, which explores the relationship between a nettlesome pre-teen boy, his family’s Filipino domestic helper, and his middle-class parents, Chen halted filming because he spotted a tiny pink dress hanging in the background – a detail that has no place in a family with no young daughters.
Before shooting this year’s Wet Season, which follows the journey of a middle-aged Chinese teacher as she seeks reprieve from loneliness through her friendship with a student, he insisted his lead actress, Yeo Yann Yann, lose weight so her face would be less square and thus more delicate for her role as the long-suffering wife. On a more charming note, Chen inputs the hundreds of names of his cast and crew into the end credits himself to ensure no mistakes are made.
Failure, his nemesis
One can argue that film directors need to be fussy and exacting in order to bring the final vision into being. But Chen doesn’t just see the big picture: he sees the medium picture, the little picture and the pictures that aren’t even there. His perfectionism is borderline pathological, and it’s all for the sake of his craft. “These details are what make my films feel real,” he explains. “I would ask my art department, ‘Who buys the furniture in this house? Who chooses the paintings for the walls?’ Because there’s a big difference if the house has been styled by the husband or the wife.” For Chen, it’s perfectly normal to spend months looking for the perfect kampung or deliberating over which minor character drives what car.
As expected from impassioned control freaks, Chen is ultimately hardest on himself. To him, failure is an inconceivable notion. “In the last scene of Wet Season, there’s a tracking shot of the main character just walking. Everything had to be just right. I could see it in my head when I wrote the script. But when we still couldn’t get it after 16 takes, I closed my eyes and started crying,” he recalls.
Chen says his inability to deal with failure explains his aversion to risks. After all, it took him three years before he was satisfied with the film’s script. “I won’t begin filming until I wholeheartedly understand the world I created, to be able to feel the tone and emotion and the breath and the beats of every character. It’s why I can be dogmatic on the set. You may be the actress but I’ve lived with this character for three years. If I had a p*ssy, I could play her.”
It’s a blessing (and a miracle) that Chen’s bullheaded pursuit of the perfect shot hasn’t led to any Kubrickian extremes. He doesn’t need them, because he gets his realism through observation.
Here is a man who could chatter animatedly, affably and no doubt endlessly about his latest project but his eyes are often working as hard as his mouth.
“Years ago I was seated near Isabelle Huppert at a dinner thrown in her honour by the Hong Kong International Film Festival. At one point, I noticed that she wanted to reapply her lipstick but didn’t have a mirror, so she used the reflection from her knife instead. When I saw that, I thought that gesture could go into a film,” he says.
This keen sense of perception lets him access inspiration from just about anywhere, and from anyone. “I observe everything in my life. The fights I have with my wife, the things my friends say and even the little mannerisms I notice in people would end up in my film. I’m constantly watching and I have a really good memory, so be very careful!”
Crazy rich what?
Chen may not have mellowed with age, but his storytelling has. Ten years of marriage, the birth of his first child after years of struggling to conceive, and his wife’s health issues all served as fodder for a more mature tale in Wet Season. “I think a lot of the main character is modelled after my wife – that quiet resilience and elegance that comes through despite all the struggles, the defeats and the pain. She doesn’t fight in a big way, but with grace,” he says.
Art has also imitated art in this case. “I was very inspired by Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi. His work is incredible. Most of his portraits are of women but you never see their faces. You only see their backs and yet there’s still so much emotion and space there,” Chen says. “So you will see a lot of similar shots in Wet Season. You don’t have to see someone’s face to know they’re crying.”
Quiet sensitivity and character- driven narratives aren’t the only elements that tie Chen’s body of work together. Many of his short films, which include Homesick (2013), Karang Guni (2012) and Cannes winner Ah Ma (2007) are set in Singapore and capture moments that Singaporeans will find relatable or at least endearingly familiar. In essence, there’s nothing crazy or rich about the Asians in Chen’s films.
“I wouldn’t have minded if Crazy Rich Asians was set in America,” remarks Chen of the Hollywood hit. “They make 500 rom-coms a year so one film isn’t going to change how we see their country. But we are a country of 5 million people and in a good year we make 20 films. So the fact that the movie is such a big misrepresentation of Singapore personally offends me. The book isn’t a Nobel Prize-winning piece of literature but I enjoyed its sharp satire and it’s a hundred times more intelligent than the film.”
Though he’s currently based in London while also working on his first English-language film featuring a British cast, Chen will continue to write about his beloved home country. “I think it’s b*llsh*t when people say I have to be right in the centre of things happening in Singapore to be able to capture it. I spend about three months out of a year in Singapore, and being away lets me see with objectivity and understanding.”
But it matters less to Chen where the camera is pointed than the intention behind it because, he says, “I want people to feel that I am an honest filmmaker. And I don’t mean it in a way that suggests all films should be so realistic and naturalistic that they look like documentaries. Honesty can be found in a science fiction film or a superhero film. Honesty is about being true to the characters, to spaces, to relationships and to society.”