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‘Wet Season’ Star Yeo Yann Yann on the Need for Quality Chinese-Language Films

Rebecca Davis

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Malaysia’s Yeo Yann Yann wiped away tears that weren’t purely of joyous triumph just minutes after receiving the 2019 Golden Horse Award for best actress in Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s “Wet Season.” The film plays in the New Chinese Cinema section of this week’s International Film Festival & Awards (IFFAM).

Emotion welled up as she spoke to a handful of reporters backstage in the bowels of Taipei’s Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall about her fellow actresses back home in Malaysia and Singapore, countries with fiilm industries that are still small.

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“Everyone struggles a lot. There are very few opportunities and Chinese-language roles, and lots of actresses who all have so much passion and want to be in this profession. There’s a bit of a feeling of being stranded there. I’m one of the lucky ones,” she said in Mandarin.

She recalled her last Golden Horse victory for 2013’s best supporting actress in Chen’s Camera d’Or-winning “Ilo Ilo.” “When colleagues came to congratulate me last time, they told me, thank you for showing us this is possible. Today I again showed them that possibility. Everyone, we can do this!”

With personable sincerity, she then said she had a message to “all the women in the world” about her win. “Your determination and your tenderness are the creative inspiration I will never be able to use up in this lifetime. Thank you.”

Back to the reality of her “most basic life” two weeks later, she told Variety over the phone in English that going from actress to star has involved a “kind learning process.”

“Here, we take our MRT (Singapore’s subway system) and observe people on the street and nobody cares who you are,” she laughed. On the festival circuit, she’s had to “learn how to look good all the time, how to smile all the time even when you’re so tired and take photos.”

Yeo will soon appear as the mother of a difficult autistic son in one part of the six-episode HBO Asia series “Invisible Stories,” about low-income people living in Singapore’s government-subsidized housing, which hits January 5. She’s also looking forward to taking some down time to “let it all sink in and reflect on what the next path to pursue as a person and an artist.” 

Her favorite part of attending the Golden Horse Awards this year was connecting with the other best actress nominees and hearing how they approached their craft — something she hadn’t really done in 2013, since she’d been in a sort of “dazed mood” at how surreal the whole thing felt.

“Sometimes the creative process can feel very lonely, like there’s no one else in this world that would understand you,” she said. “I met all these women who are so strong, and are willing to put themselves into their characters, to experience their happiness, sadness, pain and everything. It takes courage to do that.”

Entering the difficult headspace it took to portray her “Wet Season” character Ling took that kind of courage, Yeo explained. Ling is a Malaysian Chinese teacher living in Singapore who yearns to be pregnant, but who is stuck in a loveless marriage and strikes up an unconventional relationship with one of her young pupils, played by Koh Jia Ler.

“Every part of Ling’s life is stressful: her marriage, her family, her work. She feels lost, trapped. When I try to recall her, it’s not a very happy feeling,” Yeo said. “The process of getting closer and closer to her was both exciting and quite scary for me, as I tried to see how vulnerable I could make her. It’s not just a feeling of being naked in front of the camera — it’s being naked, but also letting out my blood.”

The climactic sex scene between her and Koh, who plays her son in “Ilo Ilo,” took 18 hours to rehearse. “It looks so clumsy, but the clumsiness is actually very rehearsed,” she said. “It’s so easy to misunderstand that scene, to go into an area that we wouldn’t want our audience to go to. I see it as a complex moment of Ling, who’s been such a responsible person, losing herself.” The 18-year-old Koh, who has called her mommy since their first film together — and jokingly just after — was a bit less comfortable with the scene.

“Wet Season” has just hit Singaporean theaters on November 28, and Yeo is hoping for a good turnout despite the competition with “Frozen 2.”

“If we don’t support local films, soon no one will tell our own story. We’ll lose part of our identity,” she said. “I hope the film will show people here that even if you stay in your home country, you can still make good work that touches people, even without the budgets of Hollywood or China.”

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