The Leap Years, aka Leap of Love, was a long process in the making. Having tracked this movie for a number of years now, it is going to make its debut this year premiering exactly on Feb 29 no less. While there were the usual production woes, I thought that this was one of those projects that remain in development hell, and given the overlong trailers being played in the cinemas - I didn't time it, but it was more than 3 minutes long - I thought it would be one of those that would sink immediately upon release, despite having international flavour with the casting of Joan Chen and Ananda Everingham. Well, the good news is the Singapore's first English language romance movie passes the litmus test.
Based on the novella by Catherine Lim, The Leap Years tells 2 stories in parallel, but both centered on Li-Ann and her friends through a period of 16 years (4 leap years in total), consisting almost every boy-finds-girl-loves-loses-etc plot point you can think of. And for the most parts, it was almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy of a fortune teller's advice to Li-Ann on her love being one like the wind, which delivered yet another set of cliches like Windows Cafe, mini toy windmills, and moments where long hair gets swept away like Bollywood movies.
Li-Ann actually had three actresses portraying her. The first is Beatrice Chia, who only provides the narration. The second, Wong Li-lin as Li-Ann in her 20s-30s, and Joan Chen playing the same character, now much older. Chen had only a bit role though, which probably didn't challenge her in the acting department, and the short story is about her trying to find some reconciliatory factors with her teenage daughter, and you realize that she probably missed the kind of close-knit mother-daughter relationship that she had when younger, and trying very hard to replicate.
Wong Li-lin anchors the entire movie with her heartfelt portrayal of Li-Ann. Forget about her dismal big screen debut in the horrid German movie Love Under the Sign of the Dragon, which had her almost sleepwalking through it like a zombie, and having her voice unceremoniously dubbed in German. This one showed what she can do, without succumbing to acting cute unnecessarily. Her Li-Ann has never dated and has been holding out for someone special, and chances upon Ananda's Jeremy at an al fresco cafe one day. So the usual games people play begins, with her putting some Irish 29th Feb tradition to the test, and he plays along, towards the goal of setting up a blind date.
Naturally not everything is as rosy as it seems, since the games ended after a magical outing together, with their pledge of meeting at the same place at the same time, every leap year on her birthday. Cliche lines get thrown about, like the frequently used one about better to have loved and lost than to never had loved at all, but the key theme here is about patience. If you deem him or her special, it's well worth the wait, isn't it? Only fools rush in, as they say. So do expect lines being spouted explicitly which might make you cringe a little, or implicitly suggests something that you'd probably already know of, from the wise old sayings of those who have been there and done that.
It's almost like a typical romantic chick flick with the whispers of sweet nothings, promises made, and the quintessential scenes of shopping and lots of clothes. The soundtrack is chock full of lovely ballads by Corrine May, and you'd probably would be enthralled by how familiar locations become quite the romantic backdrops in the movie. Familiar also applies to the supporting cast, with the likes of Nadya Hutagalong and Vernetta Lopez playing good friends, as does Qi Yu Wu as KS (Kiasi? Kiasu? Kana Sai? Anything but actually).
I thought KS was a source of inspiration for those out there still carrying torches for others. It was an easy anchor point for me to dive right into the movie, with the classical example of loving someone who obviously doesn't love you back, and there comes a point in time where you have to wake up and realize your futile efforts. The reality of it is harsh and cruel at that point in time, but to be able to find strength and pick yourself up, that's quite an achievement in itself.
The Leap Years borrows its strength from Catherine Lim's story, and goes to show that no doubt the cliches are abound, this is something of a Singapore movie to be proud of - with a mix of homegrown and international talent, and a story that's purely on love and romance, and not hybrids like romantic-comedies or romantic-tragedies. Love is in the air, and for gimmick's sake, I would recommend this to be watched on the 29th of Feb, and see if you buy into that Irish folklore. I would play along though... but now to have someone make that proposal.. ha!
Director Jean Yeo and actor Qii Yu Wu were present for a post-screening discussion, and here's an excerpt:
Q: What were the challenges faced when adapting the novella for the film?
Jean: I've read the story a few times. The novella is a different medium, and what we got was the essence of the story, which had to be treated as a different entity. The format of the novella was quite different too, in that it can touch on the various nuances in relationships, but for the film, it was set in 4 days over a period of 16 years.
Q: How did you all come up with the February 29th folklore?
Jean: Credit goes to Catherine Lim of course for her research on the topic and the date.
Q: Is speaking English a challenge for you?
Yu Wu: I speak good English [to laughter] and it was very challenging for me to speak not-so-good English in the movie [to more laughter].
Q: What are the other projects you're currently working on?
Yu Wu: I've just finished Painted Skin with Donnie Yen and Zhou Xun. It should be released in October, and has a lot of fighting and visual effects, quite unlike The Leap Years.
Jean: I have two movies in the offing, one of which is a small movie to tap the children / family market, tentatively set in Pulau Ubin, and the other is a movie about the friendship of 4 girls over different eras.
Q: How did you choose the cast?
Jean: I started with the television series Growing Up and Triple 9, so Li-Lin and I go back a long way. I thought her acting in the series were not pushed to the limit, and there's a vulnerable side of her that I want to show. I've also collaborated with Vernetta in television. Yu Wu came recommended through Chinese dramas, and Ananda was through an audition, who mesmerized with his soulful eyes. The others were based on auditions.
Q: Was the flashback sequence part of the novella?
Jean: It wasn't in the novella, and it was added as a marketing decision to get Joan Chen involved, as her presence could help with the distribution of the film. It was shot separately, and the 9 minutes of Joan Chen's part was shot by the second unit director.
Q: How faithful is it to the novella, and what was left out / included?
Jean: It is faithful in essence. The character KS is very different in the novella, where he's a literature major who speaks English fluently! If we filmed it like it's presented in the book, you'll probably be bored to tears!
Q: How does it feel playing a character spanning a long period of time?
Yu Wu: I felt the earlier years the character should have more weight, and hence I put some weight on, which in the later part I managed to slim back down. I liked the role, as it shows the positive side or being rejected, and moving on. I like the role very much and it's inspired me actually.
Q: Do you feel movies like this would help the local film industry?
Yu Wu: When we watch a romance movie, there's somehow something missing. This Singapore one would probably find audiences feeling closer to t, as here are lots of familiar locations.
Jean: We need all kinds of films, as they all represent different slices of life here. This is something more urban versus the heartlander type. We need a lot of different voices in films to evolve, and I would encourage anyone out there to do different kinds of films.
Yu Wu: This one also feels real because there are those who speak good English, and those who speak bad English like me. There's also a lot of dialect in the movie, which makes it seem real too.
Sinema.SG speaks with director Jean Yeo, which you can check out by clicking on this link!