Review: A Land Imagined (2018)

It is difficult to imagine that the Singapore depicted in Hollywood box office hit Crazy Rich Asians is the same city that is depicted in Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined, the 2018 Locarno Film Festival Golden Leopard award winner. 

While Hollywood portrays this little red dot as a charming metropolis endowed with abundant wealth and glamour on the silver screen, A Land Imagineds Singapore appears alien and almost dystopian. The endless landscapes of sand, dirt and industrial machines, the small cluttered bedrooms and spaces inhabited by the migrant workers, and the distant towering machines glowing dimly across the ocean give little hints of a bustling metropolitan world. 

The craft here is impeccable. Watching this film truly does feel like a dream. The images captivate my senses and the world presented feels very real, even as the details are hazy, distant and unknowable. 

A Land Imagined opens at night and introduces itself with a mystery-noir setting. We see a car heading down a road lit by street lamps shining a saturated orange glow onto the wet road. The car passes foreboding industrial machines and architecture. The car’s driver is Lok (Singaporean Peter Yu), a weary police detective who is heading over to Singapore’s land reclamation site to look for Wang (theatre artist Liu Xiaoyi), a missing migrant worker. 

Lok questions Wang’s employers and uncovers some rather sketchy pieces of information. Migrant workers are left to come into work whenever they please (Wang has not come to work for a week), and the employers hold onto their employees' passports for ‘safe keeping’ (it is illegal to do so in Singapore). 

A mystery has been set up: What exactly happened to Wang? Did his employers have a hand in his disappearance? With his partner, Lok continues to look for clues by searching Wang's dormitory room and questioning his friends.

The film’s narrative is straightforward at this point, but ten minutes into the film, cracks in reality begin to emerge. Lok claims to have seen visions of Wang’s last days before his disappearance in his dreams, and suddenly, we are no longer following Lok’s story. 

Wang becomes our central character and the film slowly begins to follow a social-realist vein. After injuring his arm, Wang becomes unable to sleep. He becomes an insomniac wanderer, spending his sleepless nights at a 24-hour internet cafe near his dormitory, passing the time playing computer games (primarily first-person shooter Counter-Strike) and spending time with a elusive female employee at the cafe whose side job is selling sexual favours. 

Though the film never completely forgets the mystery of his eventual disappearance, Wang’s daily routine becomes the main emphasis. Through Wang’s perspective, Yeo brings to the forefront the social concerns of migrant workers--their poor living conditions in Singapore and being taken advantage of by their employers. They are plagued by the possibility of being sent home owing debts to the company, not being paid even after working, and not being able to return home even if they have a family emergency. 

A Land Imagined is not content with staying in one place. As we continue with Wang’s journey and he slowly becomes accustomed to his nocturnal lifestyle, we see him less and less during the day. He spends more time at the internet cafe, or out at night with his friends. He becomes sucked into the imagined land of computers, obsessed with his game, chatting with a stranger behind the screen about the problems in his life. We don’t know how much time exactly has passed. It could have been days, weeks, even months. How long has this man not slept? 

Unlike more conventional depictions of Singapore on the silver screen where realism is king, A Land Imagined takes a more surrealist approach. Characters often behave as though they have been hypnotised. There is something odd about the way the actors move, perform actions or deliver their lines. At times it feels a little too early, and others a little too late. 

There are a few too many narrative threads left hanging and ambiguous. How is Lok, a police officer, able to live in some kind of landed private property? What exactly happened to Wang? Who is the mysterious stranger behind the computer screen chatting with Lok and Wang? Did we see Wang’s actual life before his disappearance or was it all just Lok’s imagination? 

A Land Imagined is not a conventional film by any means, and the film’s shifting tones and ambiguous narrative threads may feel at times like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with a piece lost. 

Although I watched the film quite a while ago, several great scenes from the movie still linger in my mind. Perhaps most notable is the film’s conversion of popular Counter-Strike map "de_dust2" into a captivating sensory experience. 

A Land Imagined has stirred my heart. The moods conjured, the emotions brought about, and the artistic images which strike a balance between unworldly and real. It is without a doubt world-class cinema.  

A Land Imagined was screened in competition at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival, where it won Best Asian Feature Film.

Written by Timothy Ong
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