Analysis: ‘A Land Imagined’ — The Story of The Sculptors of Our Land
Written and directed by Singaporean filmmaker Yeo Siew Hua, A Land Imagined is the Singaporean first film to win the Locarno Film Festival’s top prize in 2018. The film also nabbed the Original Screenplay and Original Film Score prizes at the 2019 Golden Horse Awards. It brought forth a new form to Singaporean cinema with its fusion of neo-noir, mystery, and thriller genres.
This sensational film tells the story of Detective Lok (Peter Yu) who investigates the case of a Chinese migrant worker Wang (Liu Xiaoyi) who goes missing. While following Wang’s tracks, he trails back to the migrant worker’s job as a driver for Bangladeshi workers, and his nighttime escapes to a cybercafé, attended by the rebellious Mindy (Luna Kwok), where he plays video games to pass sleepless nights. Lok eventually falls deeper and loses himself in the migrant worker’s seemingly mundane life.
The film is split into three portions as we see the story unfold from Lok’s perspective, then Wang’s, and finally Lok’s again. Through its dreamy visuals and narrative style, A Land Imagined comes off as feeling unreal — as if the film’s events are occurring in someone’s dreams.
Now, let’s take a look at the main subject of the film. The life of the migrant workers.
The film touches on the unseen life of Singapore’s migrant workers. Wang has been missing for a few days, and it seems like many of the other workers are indifferent to this matter. This event seemingly mocks Singaporeans who are blind to the lives of migrant workers. The others mention that Wang going missing almost makes him lucky as he could escape this place, implying and reflecting the torture of working as a migrant worker.
The film also shows the cultural aspects that migrant workers hold dearly onto, such as with Bangladeshi workers gathering together in a celebration of dance and song. The scene, in particular, feels like a trance or a sort of enchantment attempting to hypnotise viewers. With the backing of the film’s jazzy soundtrack, it is almost as if such sequences signify the release of tension both in the film and within its characters. It seems these are the only opportunities where the characters can escape their difficulties and let loose.
Another place in which the characters can gain solace and release from their struggles is the cybercafé. The cybercafé, from its neon pink staircase to its brightly-lit setups, is in complete contrast to the dull dark colours of the construction site. It seems like a sort of magical escape where people could come to forget their issues by playing video games; a euphoric virtual drug to ease their minds.
A Land Imagined carries a huge attachment to the idea of “our land” and how Singapore’s land is reclaimed. When Wang and Mindy get on a short escape to a beach, they share with each other their wish to travel. Mindy dreams of leaving the country to go someplace else. The two joke about how they are already in another country as the land belongs to someplace else. It’s an idea that gives the character’s a form of solace. We see their hopes and dreams give these disconsolate characters something to look forward to, to escape their realities and find their own space. Their own home. Their happiness.
In the film, Detective Lok and Wang seem very similar, their situations mirrored. Both characters are insomniacs and go through the whole story in a dreamlike manner through seemingly disjointed scenes and events.
A Land Imagined‘s cinematography further accentuates the story’s surreal tone. Shaking cameras in multiple scenes create a wobbly state of mind. One memorable moment comes with a tight closeup of Wang in the cybercafé as if he is sucked into the games. The film’s lighting, slow-paced edits, movements of the character, and non-linear narrative, all come together to create a reverie effect.
The musical score, intricately weaved by award-winning composer Teo Wei Yong, also adds to this sleepy, nebulous imagery we see. Ultimately, all of these elements make viewers themselves feel as though they have not slept in days and they are watching things unfold in a very cloudy way. This dreamlike effect is what makes the film so magnificent. A Land Imagined not only has an intriguing plot, but it is also a visual masterpiece and a feast for our senses, absorbing us into the conditions of its characters.
This immersive nature puts us in their shoes, just as the detective puts himself in Wang’s shoes. Just as Detective Lok gets ever more entranced as he ventures deeper into the investigations, so do the audience as the film progresses.
With all these said, the ending of the film is — by far — its best aspect, masterfully wrapping up a tremendous film. We see Detective Lok join a group of Bangladeshi workers in their dance around a bonfire. As they do so, the scene shows the silhouettes of the workers against a backdrop of Singapore’s cityscape.
The film ends with a figure that seems to belong to Wang silently looking out into the city. This hazy sequence shows that though these migrant workers have given up their happiness and suffer so much to have made this city, all they can do is watch it from afar as they will never find their place here.
They are buried and have vanished in the very land they helped to make. They are left with nothing but the desire to find a place here, to finally stop floating through their lives, and feel the land beneath their feet. They desire to ground themselves. To find a home. But instead, they return to working tirelessly and finding these few moments of release to hang on, while living their entire lives as if it were a fuzzy dream.
The film draws in the viewer to experience the lives of the workers who operate lifelessly, tapped in this trance to help them get by. They dream of going to a distant land, finding a home in their own space, but ultimately find themselves forgotten by the country they made. This reverie is all they have before they slowly vanish into their daydreams while the world moves on without a care.
This situation of the hands behind Singapore is poignantly summarized in Wang’s words, “I dreamed of my own death. It was like being swallowed by something… I was being forgotten by a kind of ignorance”
The director poses this thought to our dear locals. Will we just ignore the backbone of our nation? Or will their voices be heard? Can they truly ever find a home in Singapore?
Check out our episode of 100 Seconds On The Red Sofa with Yeo Siew Hua and award-winning composer Teo Wei Yong here.
Stream the Golden Horse Award-winner A Land Imagined on Netflix
Images credit: Akanga Film Asia