A Straight Line in the Sand: Thoughts on A Land Imagined
by Marc Nair, 10 March 2019
A Land Imagined, Yeo Siew Hua’s second feature film, slips in between genres, wearing a particular hue that isn’t often seen in Singapore. Winning the Golden Leopard at the 2018 Locarno International Film Festival, Yeo has joined the likes of Preminger, Jarmusch and Kubrick in scooping up this prestigious award.
Here’s the plot in brief: A worker from China, Wang Bi Cheng (Liu Xiaoyi), who’s on light duties after breaking his arm, goes missing together with the lorry he’s driving at a Singapore land reclamation site. Detective Lok (Peter Yu), an insomniac police investigator, and his sidekick are assigned to unravel the events that led to his disappearance, discovering a seedy underbelly to the country, miles away from the Crazy Rich Asians landscape preferred by the Singapore Tourism Board.
The mise en scène of the film is built around rare glimpses of actual worker dormitories and construction sites, usually off-limits to the public. Yeo was able to get access to these spaces because he had a locations team that pushed hard for access to some of these highly restricted locations.
Yeo: It was absolutely crucial that we captured the real living and working conditions of the migrant workers. It was just not possible to build a set for it. I was adamant on approaching this film with elements of the real, a bit like a documentary.
This blend between a fictive plot – in itself sparked by the real life protest of a pair of crane workers in 2013, and everyday scenes unsettles the audience. The scenario is a plausible one and it plucks at our collective conscience. So much of how Singapore is built is unseen. Citizens throw up their own social walls, separating migrant workers from the rest of the country. Even the intersection points in the film are liminal spaces; the cyber café with Mindy (Luna Kwok) the night manager/hostess and the man-made beaches made from sand imported from various countries: Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, etc. Wang jokes about taking Mindy to a different country every night.
William Jamieson writes here of the irony of reclamation, which “appears to imply that Singapore is retrieving something from the sea, re-claiming what was already its own, when it has in fact been building land where land had never existed before.” And in Yeo’s film, the unsaid looms larger than life on our screens, piles of sand that could hide anything; even a body. At what point does Singapore stop being Singapore?
The film offers insights into identity formation through contemplative, sometimes cryptic lines like what Lok utters when Jason, the nephew of a construction company boss, takes him to see an island of reclaimed sand.
Lok: What is this land that we can shape and mould as we please?
Jason: Officer, your question is too deep for me. I hear you but I don’t understand.
Yeo: Identity formation in Singapore is fluid and schizophrenic. Like our ceaselessly shifting shorelines, (re)claimed from sand we appropriate from so many places, our cultural make up is just as layered but also imaginary and political because it is not an organic formation, but imagined and designed through policy.
The polity of Singaporeans, who define identity through National Day songs, is an implied parallel to the wrenching tunes sung and danced by the Indian workers in the evenings; dances in which first, Wang, and then later, Lok join in.
The organs of the state are distanced and only considered as bureaucratic extensions through the police and the construction company, who treats the workers as factors, rather than faces of production. Reality is numbing and too painful, which is why Wang begins to slip into an imaginary space, justified through his unending insomnia. Eventually, Lok too becomes embroiled within Wang’s dreamlike world.
Yeo: Sleepless, the waking dream plugs Lok into a sort of collective hallucination. For me, this dreaming is not an illusion to be mistrusted against the real, but an ability to radically think up of an Other outside and beyond the boundaries of the self. This transformation must ultimately be outside the reaches of the state, and so Lok must eventually go rogue to become a part of it.
The increasing dystopia of the plot is reinforced by the noirish mood, with cinematographer Urata Hideho’s rain-slicked exteriors morphing into the ominous red glow from Mindy’s cyber café, where the physical investigation melts into a digital dreamscape set against the multiplayer world of Counter Strike.
A Land Imagined dissolves into its own imagination as the characters gradually disappear in their own ways. The implied death of Wang and even the sudden disappearance of Wang’s Bengali co-worker Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico) resolve in ways that don’t quite absolve the construction company, but point to an uneasy peace; one in which the work, represented by giant industrial machines, carries on, and workers are impersonal cogs in the machine.
Yeo took four years to make the film. Two years of that was research, spending time with the migrant worker community to get to know them and their stories, which resulted in the plot of the film. But in the end, the various threads in A Land Imagined remain knotted and there is no clear resolution for any one character because there is no restitution for the ceaseless urge to build a country in straight lines; redrawing boundaries by nationsplaining identity one sand barge at a time.
Watch the trailer here.
Unless otherwise stated, all images in the article are taken from the trailer.
A Land Imagined has limited daily screenings at Cathay Cineleisure and will be showing at The Projector at 5.10pm on 17 March.