'A Land Imagined': Film Review | Locarno 2018

Courtesy of Films de Force Majeure
Beached on new land.

Singaporean filmmaker Yeo Siew Hua's sophomore feature won the Locarno Film Festival's top prize, the Golden Leopard.

Film noir, social realism and a few other genres are all tossed together into a cement mixer to make A Land Imagined, the sophomore feature from Singaporean director Yeo Siew Hua after his experimental low-budget debut, 2009's In the House of Straw. Featuring a weary police detective who is only lacking a fedora, a loudmouthed cybercafe employee with a side gig sexually pleasing her customers and two generically exploited migrant workers that go missing after a construction-site accident, this feature is, much like the city-state of Singapore itself, which draws on many archetypes and influences and then tries to let them all coexist peacefully. But Yeo isn’t experienced enough to convincingly pull off genre acrobatics this complex, delivering a film that often feels derivative in terms of its style and that doesn’t have the storytelling goods to let all these different influences coalesce coherently. 

Though a Locarno jury led by Jia Zhangke warmed to this quicksilver portrait of the dark side of a quickly developing metropolis, awarding it the Golden Leopard, A Land Imagined won’t have much of a commercial life beyond festival and specialized venues.  

Worn out and borderline disinterested police investigator Lok (Singaporean TV star Peter Yu) is somehow charged with looking for Wang (Liu Xiaoyi, who comes from experimental theater), a mainland Chinese worker on one of the countless construction sites extending Singapore’s tiny landmass farther west. He was involved in an on-site accident and then became a driver at only a third of his already small pay before he finally went missing with a colleague from Bangladesh, Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico, playing a character who looks like he walked in from the set of A Yellow Bird). 

Rather incredibly, Lok keeps asking things like “How can people live like that?” and “How do people sleep here?” when confronted with the dire state of the place where Wang — and a lot of the other migrant workers — lived before he disappeared. Is it possible he has never left the skyscraper-filled, perfectly spick-and-span city center in all his years on the job? It is clear that Yeo, who also wrote the screenplay, wants to suggest that the average Singaporean might be unaware of the situation of these migrants whose contributions help perpetuate Singapore’s economic (and geographic) miracle. But it is simply impossible to believe that a hard-boiled police detective has never been confronted with the seedier side of life in the tiny city-state, however much white-collar crime he might have investigated before he was somehow assigned this case.

After having introduced the colorless Lok as a kind of modern-day film-noir hero, Yeo rewinds to introduce Wang in a sociorealist vein. We first meet him when he has the on-site work accident, which leads him to accept a job as a one-armed driver. Without access to his passport, which the evil bosses keep from all the workers, he has no hope of ever going home. So instead, besides hanging out with Ajit, he starts frequenting a neon-lit cybercafe during his sleepless nights, where he strikes up virtual friendships with fellow players of a violent video game, as well as a strange rapport with the punk-rock girl (Luna Kwok from Kaili Blues) who works there. Called Mindy according to the end credits, she is one of those improbable male fantasies that domineeringly tells possible customers that the place’s “air conditioning isn’t for free” but who simultaneously has no qualms about giving clients a hand job should their screens fail to offer full satisfaction. It is perhaps no surprise she almost looks like a manga girl come to life, as shot by Wong Kar-wai’s Christopher Doyle, though this woozy fantasy figure is yet another influence added to the increasingly motley bunch of styles trying to co-inhabit the same film. 

A lot of the story takes place at night, as the film noir genre dictates. There’s a lovely nighttime sequence on a beach during which the idea is coined that being on one of these newly created lands is like being abroad, since the sand was brought in from places like Malaysia or Vietnam. It is one of the few moments during which the characters seem human — they dream out loud about traveling and forgetting their daily worries — while at the same time their conversation advances the film’s thematic concerns. But not much later, the film has turned into a strange Asian horror knockoff on that same beach and it becomes increasingly difficult to put all the different strands together, especially as the computer-game strand takes on more importance even as it becomes less clear.

Does Yeo want to do David Lynch one better and suggest Lok was not only dreamed up by Wang but perhaps Wang was imagined by Lok as well? By entirely throwing out the film’s already tenuous hold on something resembling reality, all of the material’s sociorealist concerns go out the window. Fever dreams — or fever nightmares, for that matter — are great for exploring processes and emotions that are fully internal and function through association and imagination. But since they reject at least some logic, they aren't well-suited to comment on facts in the real world and this is where A Land Imagined loses the viewer. On top of that, it is almost impossible to care about the supposedly precarious situation of characters that might not even be real within the context of the film itself.  

The actors all seem almost to sleepwalk through their scenes, which is appropriate for both world-weary police detectives and exploited workers. However, it also makes it even harder to feel any empathy toward the characters, further ensuring most viewers will have logged out long before this story has reached its end.  

Production companies: Akanga Film Asia, MM2 Entertainment, Films de Force Majeure, Volya Films, 13 Little Pictures
Cast: Peter Yu, Liu Xiaoyi, Luna Kwok, Jack Tan, Ishtiaque Zico, Kelvin Ho, George Low, Andie Chen
Writer-Director: Yeo Siew Hua
Producers: Fran Borgia
Executive producers: Melvin Ang, Ng Say Yong
Director of photography: Hideho Urata
Production designer: James Page
Costume designer: Meredith Lee
Editor: Daniel Hui
Music: Teo Wei Yong
Sales: Visit Films
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)

In Mandarin, English, Bengali
No rating, 95 minutes