Writer-director Yeo Siew Hua manages to find a beguiling balance between social realism and the hallucinatory in this promising Locarno Golden Leopard winner.
Dir. Yeo Siew Hua
2018 | Singapore | Drama/Mystery | 95 mins | 2.35:1 | Mandarin, English & Bengali
NC16 (passed clean) for some coarse language and sexual scene
Cast: Peter Yu, Liu Xiaoyi, Luna Kwok
Plot: A lonely construction worker from China goes missing at a Singapore land reclamation site, and a sleepless police investigator must put himself in the mind of the migrant to uncover the truth beneath all that sand.
Awards: Won Golden Leopard, Prize of the Ecumenical Jury – Special Mention, & Junior Jury Award (Locarno)
International Sales: Visit Films
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed at Singapore Film Society screening)
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A Land Imagined continues our tiny nation’s post-2010s resurgence as one of Southeast Asia’s shining cinema outposts. It should, however, not contend with being an outpost anymore, for in recent years, the major competition berths and awards that have been eluding our filmmakers for decades are now becoming a regular occurrence.
This is no fluke and suggests that we do have, and legitimately so, an exciting and fascinating group of forward-thinking and artistically-astute filmmakers who are also—and very critically—well-nourished cinephiles.
Writer-director Yeo Siew Hua is one of a handful who fits the bill, and in his latest outing, A Land Imagined, we see a burgeoning filmmaker coming into his own with a picture that shows great promise and defies genre categorisation.
The Locarno International Film Festival’s awarding of its top prize, the prestigious Golden Leopard, to Yeo’s film was unexpected but it was a bold choice. It recognised what Yeo is trying to achieve here, even if it is not a perfect film, and this is very reassuring.
Crucially, it reveals to us something instrumental—that digging deep for a worthy Singaporean story to tell may not be enough; instead, one ought to render it as cinematic as possible, and no less in the medium’s best tradition, that is, to afford the story its deserved aural-visual-narrative treatment. A Land Imagined very much ticks this checkbox with aplomb.
Yeo Siew Hua is the first Singaporean to win the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival, joining the illustrious likes of Jim Jarmusch, Claire Denis, Terence Davies, Jafar Panahi, Lav Diaz and Hong Sang-soo, to name a few.
It is a unique take on a number of matters that have plagued the country in recent times—for instance, the plight of low-wage foreign workers, the country’s obsession with land reclamation, issues of border and territory etc., and from a macro-philosophical standpoint, our Singaporean stake in the shifting sands of land and time.
Peter Yu, Liu Xiaoyi and Luna Kwok star as Lok, a police investigator; Wang, a construction worker; and Mindy, a cybercafe employee, respectively. Their characterisations are fleeting, as if a gust of wind might blow them away into oblivion. Much of the screen time is devoted to Wang, who goes missing, with Lok trying to uncover an elusive truth.
Yeo plays with the structure of his narrative, though one might feel that the tricky balancing act between Wang and Lok (who both share the same ailment of sleeplessness) leaves a fair bit to be desired, with the lopsided focus on Wang tipping the balance precariously. But Kwok’s outstanding performance mitigates that effect.
However, one cannot doubt Yeo’s assured grasp of moods. Here, he manages to find a beguiling balance between social realism and the hallucinatory, often with the aid of the film’s unorthodox score by Teo Wei Yong, not to mention the shrewd choice of songs that punctuate key moments, and the quite remarkable cinematography by Hideho Urata that dovetails between rain-soaked night-lit roads and harsh, machine-populated sandscapes.
For some peculiar reason, don’t you think that A Land Imagined would make a great double-bill with Lou Ye’s Suzhou River (2000)?