A LAND IMAGINED is a Deliberate and Sincere Account on the Lives of Migrant Workers in Singapore
As Inspector Lok looks into the case of a missing construction site worker, he begins to uncover the gritty realities of migrant workers in a progress-focused society.
Directors: Yeo Siew Hua
Cast: Peter Yu, Liu Xiaoyi, Guo Yue, Ishatiaque Zico, Jack Tan
Language: Mandarin, English, Bengali
Runtime: 95 minutes
As the first Singaporean film to win the top prize at Switzerland’s Locarno International Film Festival, the Golden Leopard, A Land Imagined (2018) is going on to represent Singapore as our entry to the Academy Awards’ Best International Feature Film category this year. The film has also received four nominations for the 2019 Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards.
The main narrative arc follows the events that lead up to the disappearance of Wang Bi Chen (Liu Xiao Yi) and after he disappears, when police inspector Lok (Peter Yu) retraces the missing worker’s footsteps. Nothing else can be said, nor should be said, about what the film is about because – as with all noir films – the experience of watching it is what makes the film.
Right from the get-go, A Land Imagined is an art house film, conveniently weaving in themes of dreams and dreamscapes to disrupt any semblance of a clear narrative. Propounded as a mystery, the film leaves us swimming in confusion over unreadable characters and inexplicable happenings. (Liu Xiaoyi displays a masterful act as the naive and reticent Wang, with his convincing performance giving depth to a character who does not have much to say.)
With Inspector Lok and Wang having their own mysteries to investigate throughout the film, A Land Imagined roots us firmly into the shoes of the confused insomniacs who stumble about in search of clues, their lives enmeshed and intertwined.
So don’t worry if things don’t make sense. The film’s title already sets the stage for a lucid dream on screen; the first-person perspective that the film constantly utilises ensures that we feel and see exactly as the characters do. It’s easy to say that one should just let the feelings of bewilderment wash over you, but the premise of the film insists on them being a justified part of the entire narrative.
Filled with wonder and possibility, but also terror and uncertainty, dreams become the appropriate vessel for the simultaneous plots going on in A Land Imagined. We start to ask the same questions as the troubled protagonists who have not slept for days: What’s happening? Who is who? What is real?
Though, there is one thing A Land Imagined doesn’t let you forget, amidst all the flights of fancy: the land reclamation and construction sites. Skyscraping cranes, clockwork machinery and piles of sand are given constant attention. Cinematographer Hideho Urata makes sure to alternate close-up shots and wide-shots, giving the location its cold and aloof register from all distances.
With development and time-sensitive projects given the utmost priority in the construction industry, A Land Imagined is a scathing critique about the lives of workers being neglected in light of progress. Just like how Inspector Lok muses, “It’s like the two vanished. And no one is looking for them.”
And despite all the dire and gloom, it is where the focus on migrant lives is able to shine. From simple but cheerful parties to a silent moment of understanding and a neck rub, the film recognises the quiet determination of the workers to live on, regardless of the circumstances. The interactions between Wang and Ajit (Ishatiaque Zico astutely captures the poignancy and warmth in his role) are made up of sparse English words but convey a strong sense of togetherness for people who are in the same situation, a universal connection that disregards language and race.
A Land Imagined is an introspective piece that not only forces us to consider the lives of people we constantly take for granted, but also grants us access to a side of Singapore that most would not have known about. Director Yeo Siew Hua was determined to capture the true nature of migrants’ lives and had not only immersed himself in industrial areas but also filmed on-site.
Whether you are into art films or not, A Land Imagined is an insightful look into the living environments and conditions of these alienated figures who have little choice but to make a home far away from home.
A Land Imagined can be viewed on Netflix. Have a look at the trailer first: