Loneliness floods the expanding Singaporean landscape in Yeo Siew Hua’s sleepy mystery.
“Who remembers what it was like 30 years ago?”
Roughly a quarter of Singapore’s population consists of migrants, usually working low-paying, under-the-table jobs such as construction. In a country whose population growth forces extensive land reclamation, it’s easy to feel somewhat lost there. As the main characters point out, the sand they’re sitting on could be from Malaysia, or China, or god knows where. And for a person like young immigrant Wang (Xiaoyi Liu), whose disappearance from such a site kickstarts the events of the movie, it can mess with you in deep ways.
The investigation is spearheaded by Lok (Peter Yu), a detective whose amnesia and solitude matches Wang’s. He talks to Jason (Jack Tan), the son of the site manager, who is less than helpful – but learns that the company keeps the passports of all their workers. A lot of workers owe the company debts, and it seems to be their way of ensuring their loyalty. Wang, like everyone else, was a prisoner. As the investigation continues, he finds a 24-hour gaming café which Wang frequented and meets Mindy (Luna Kwok), who had befriended Wang, and who seems to provide more insight about the worker’s state of mind before the incident.
A Land Imagine’s Writer-Director Yeo Siew Hua emphasises how little-seen or acknowledged these migrant workers are, and we see this a fair bit when Lok tries to look into Ajit, who has also gone missing. People come and go in those jobs, which is something Lok has to learn. That a hardened detective didn’t know this at the beginning seems a bit far-fetched, as Lok acts he’s never even heard of these sorts of sites. But unless he’s only cocooned himself in the city, and never investigated crimes like this, it just strikes me as odd that this is the case.
It’s an interesting take to switch the focus from Lok to Wang so soon into the events of the film. The flashback sequences, which take up over half of the running time, are definitely the more engaging parts of the film. Wang’s loss of purpose and self-worth throughout his scenes are equal parts intense, melancholic and heavily thoughtful. He wanders in and out of a dream state, either playing MMOs in the all-night internet café, or talking to Ajit about their place in Singapore and the wider world. Both feel trapped, but when it looks like Ajit has been murdered, Wang’s paranoia grows more intense and then … well, he vanishes.
The central mystery is presented very well, and draws the viewer in nicely, keeping them hooked with the way it slowly unveils aspects of Wang as he drifts, like a ghost amidst a sea of those who are barely conscious enough to even know he’s there. The vein of loneliness and sadness that runs beneath the story permeates almost every character and it’s suggested that it’s just what Singapore does to people. You can choose to ignore it, like the Jason and his boss, you can let it consume you, like it does Wang and Lok, or you move with it: and when we see Ajit and his friends dance in the streets, a glimmer of hope and acceptance shows itself. It’s moments like these that Wang and Lok begin to look for.
Filmed in a very neo-noir style, it promises a gritty exploration of Singapore’s seedy underbelly, maybe with some moments reminiscent of Perth. In a subversion of expectations, however, it instead delves into characters’ fugue states and explores what it means to be a country that is made up of disparate pieces – both in its literal land, and the people that make it up. So it’s really a bummer that it doesn’t really answer many questions, or even feels that satisfying. It’s like there was a lot more ambition than there was resolve, and despite many of the intriguing scenes and artistically-lit environments, A Land Imagined just sort of feels hollow. Ultimately, it’s another example of the sort of excellent artistry that can come from Singapore: one that talks about relevant issues, tells a gripping story and wraps it in a visually interesting fashion. It doesn’t quite juggle everything perfectly, but really, what does it matter?
Verdict: A Land Imagined is better than I expected it would be, but it’s not as good as I had hoped. But overall? Probably still worth a watch.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Sex: A quick garage handjob/10
Corpses: One? Three? None?
Dream states: One? Two? None?
Internet troll: He definitely served a purpose to the plot.
Naked treadmills: How long did that scene go on for?
A Land Imagined (2018)
Director: Yeo Siew Hua
Writer: Yeo Siew Hua
Peter Yu – Lok
Xiaoyi Liu – Wang
Luna Kwok – Mindy
Jack Tan – Jason
Ishtiaque Zico – Ajit