YOU ARE female and single and looking for love. You see a stranger across the street, and somehow you know he’s the man of your dream. Because the day is February 29, St Patrick of Ireland has decreed that you are allowed to approach the man to ask for a date. You did just that, and now both of you have spent that evening together, walking in twilight lanes and climbing to the rooftop of an old house to admire the sky and a spread of lucent river, and sharing long-forgotten secrets and aspirations in a conspiracy of understanding.

And then, because you are incurably romantic, you agree to meet again on the same day and month, at the same place and time, which means waiting another four years for the next February 29 to come around!

Heck, if you really love each other, you wouldn’t wait until tomorrow to meet again, much less four years.

But this is The Leap Years, a Singapore-made movie about a pair of lovers who for some perverse compulsion placed upon them by their creator Singapore short-story writer Catherine Lim, can only rendezvous every four years on February 29.

It seems unnecessarily cruel of the author or whoever wrote the movie script, to inflict this kind of schedule on the poor couple, and on the audience – folks like me who have to endure the ache of separation too, when we immerse ourselves in the unhappy goings-on of the lovers.

The movie stars vivacious and lovely Wong Li-lin as the likeable heroine Li-Ann born on February 29. We watch Li-Ann on her sixth birthday (meaning she’s 24 years old) celebrating with friends and telling them that on this day, the ancient Irish chap St Pat has laid down the rule that a girl can ask a man for a date or even propose marriage to him. The man cannot refuse on pain of paying a fine.

As Li-Ann walks down Orchard Road, she spots handsome and equally likeable Jeremy – Thai heart throb Ananda Everingham wearing unwashed, un-ironed clothes – sitting outdoor at a café. She doesn’t know Jeremy from Adam (OK, there’s no Adam in the movie but there’s another guy called KS who also likes Li-Ann, just to complicate matters), but she is so smitten that she decides to ask Jeremy for a date. She writes on a slip of paper her request as well as an explanation regarding the Irish tradition, and hands the slip to the waitress to pass on to him.

Jeremy accepts her date and that evening, both spend a hee-hee-ha-ha time together, ending up on the roof of a deserted shophouse that looks across Boat Quay and the Singapore River, with the OCBC bank tower block in the near distance (every place in this stuffed-up island is near each other no matter how distant).

Jeremy says when he was a boy, his father used to take him to the top of the bank building. The father told him if he wrote a wish on a piece of paper and threw it down from the building, his wish would come true. Since the boy didn’t know then what to wish for, his paper was always blank. But now that he has met Li-Ann, he won’t be throwing away blank paper. Accordingly, both of them write their wishes on a tear-out sheet which Jeremy then folds into an aeroplane and sends it gliding towards the river. With that, Jeremy says goodbye because he has to catch a real aeroplane to fly to somewhere faraway. They promise to meet again on the next February 29 at the same time in the same café.

Four years later, they meet and this time passion runs so high they end up doing what comes natural. When Jeremy has done what a man has got to do after unzipping his pants, he reveals he has a little daughter. In a fit of passion (of another kind), Li-Ann puts on her clothes and rushes out of the room, refusing to listen to further explanation. Of course in real life, Jeremy would hold her back, and patiently tell her certain details that will make her happy again, and they would marry and stop enacting this Leap Year rendezvous nonsense.

But in reel life, the poor chap is not allowed to give his explanation, until – guess what – another four years have passed when Li-Ann, in white bridal finery, is on the verge of saying yes to another man. Will Jeremy’s crucial explanation be communicated to her in time to stop the marriage?

The romantic ups and downs are presented as a backstory narrated by a much older Li-Ann (Joan Chen) who has a grownup daughter, and whose husband is even now lying in a coma in hospital. Why is he in coma no one knows but it is a shortcut way for lazy movie-makers to create tension and anticipation without having to shoot too many explanatory scenes. The audience is left guessing whether the patient is Jeremy and whether he would recover eventually.

Thankfully, the dialogue has lots of sentimental and insightful statements on love and the painful joy of waiting for the lover. They sound so pithy and memorable that I could only nod my head when I heard them. Strangely, when the show is over, I can’t recall a word.

Wong Li-lin’s acting is natural and her lively expression evokes various emotions from the audience. In the street scene when she first sees Jeremy, she wants to date him, but feels terribly paiseh (a Hokkien term describing an acute twinge of embarrassment, shyness and shame that only Singlish-speaking folks understand). As she walks back and forth trying to make up her mind, you can hear the audience squirming and sucking their breath as they too feel an empathic attack of paiseh-ness.

This brings to mind a favourite Hokkien Taiwanese love ditty, Bong Choon Hong 望春风 (Spring Breeze Brings Hope) when a lovelorn girl sighs and says to herself,

“I’m seventeen going on eighteen but still not married. There’s this good-looking guy I wish to know but I feel paiseh to ask him. On hearing someone outside, I rush to open the door, but it’s only the mocking moon and the deceitful wind.”

Click the audio player below to hear the song.

You, too, be sentimental for a change. Go watch The Leap Years, laugh and choke and feel paiseh with Wong Li-lin, and leave the theatre a happier person.

from a movie review on February 29, 2008


Paiseh or not, go ahead,
ask him for a date
Wong Li-lin, one of Singapore's most talented actresses, struggles with her sense of paiseh as she plucks up courage to ask a stranger for a date
Stretching out on the rooftop is a great way for strangers to share memories and maxims on love and living