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Film Review #29: A LAND IMAGINED

Written by Anna 

The shots in Yeo Siew Hua’s sophomore feature, A Land Imagined, have a dreamlike quality to them. In one shot, foggy mountains of sand extend into a seemingly endless horizon. In another, torrents of rain obscure our ability to discern the full picture. And then there is the cyber cafe, with its hazy neon lights and shadowy figures.

The cyber café – based on countless Internet cafes in Singapore that operate into the wee hours of the night – serves as a respite for migrant worker Wang Bicheng (Liu Xiaoyi), whose disappearance is the film’s core mystery.

The film unflinchingly charts Wang’s experiences of life as a migrant worker living on the fringes of society. Treading a life devoid of colour, Wang has several reasons to escape his ennui-ridden life. In the day, he toils away at a land reclamation site and is mistreated by his employers. At night, he tosses and turns but never dozes off. Wang sleepwalks through the motions of time, neither dead nor truly alive.

“I can’t remember what it feels like to dream,” Wang confesses in a daze. His plight is shared by a fellow migrant worker, the amiable Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico), who longs to return home but cannot. They are seen having late-night conversations – the bond of two lonely men far away from home.

Wang’s sudden disappearance puts him on the radar of detective Lok (Peter Yu) whose personal experience bears an eerie resemblance to that of Wang’s – Lok too suffers from insomnia. When he can’t sleep, he runs naked on a treadmill at home. The image before the audience is one of stark solitude – there is no one he needs to cover up for.

Much like Singapore’s vibrant melting pot of identities and cultures, the film is a smorgasbord of elements and genres, blended together to produce something uniquely novel. Part noir mystery and part social critique, the film itself becomes an apt metaphor for the nebulous identity of the city-state.

What is Singapore if large parts of it are made up of imported sand? Could we, at times, be standing on a part of Vietnam, a coast in Cambodia, or a beach in Malaysia?

The film is a formidable technical feat. Yeo’s compositional elegance, tight script-writing and resplendent use of neon-washed colours capture the forlorn loneliness prominent to the human condition. Such astute and meticulous craft won Yeo the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival in 2018.

Ruminations on identity are ever-relevant, especially as Singapore adopts new policies at breakneck speed and undergoes rapid urban redevelopment schemes. By straddling the line between dreams and reality, Yeo posits that identity is an amorphous and indeterminate construct. There are no fixed answers.

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This review is published as an extension of *SCAPE’s Film Critics Lab: A Writing Mentorship Programme organised by The Filmic Eye with support from the Singapore Film Society.

About the Author: 

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About the Movie:
Directed by: Siew Hua Yeo
Cast: Peter Yu, Luna Kwok, Liu Xiaoyi, Jack Tan, Ishtiaque Zico

Year: 2018
Duration: 1h 35min
Language: Mandarin, English, Bengali
Advisory: NC16

Synopsis: When a lonely construction worker from China disappears at a Singapore land reclamation site, a police investigator must understand the mindset of the missing man to uncover the truth.

Awards: Golden Leopard at the 71st Locarno Film Festival, Best Asian Feature Film at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival, Singaporean Entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards

Catch A Land Imagined on Netflix now.

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