The recent box-office success of Crazy Rich Asians is proof not just of the appeal of stories from this part of the world, but of the desire for untold Asian stories. Thankfully, the next must-see film about Singapore is here – and it has nothing to do with the wealth and lavishness of the city-state. Rather, it shows audiences Singapore’s heartbreaking underbelly that is exiled from society.
The opening scene of A Land Imagined takes viewers on a trip around an anonymous desert of dirt piles, construction debris, and dusty infrastructure. To most local and international viewers, this so-called Singapore is unrecognizable. Swap the tall skyscrapers for cranes, the luxury apartments for stuffy dormitories and the sports cars with trucks, and you have yourself the setting for director Yeo Siew Hua’s dreamy thriller.
The story is about Wang, a Chinese construction worker that goes missing on a Singaporean land reclamation site. Detective Lok is the public servant assigned to his case, and the film follows him as he walks in Wang’s footsteps in an attempt to piece together the mystery of his disappearance. The story unfolds with the two men’s realities overlapping, leaving you with just as many puzzle pieces to figure out as Lok.
While maneuvering the site and the poor conditions of the dormitories, the detective is faced with the challenge of finding a man that has disappeared in an ocean of other men just like him. A strong sense of indifference resonates with the other workers, almost suggesting that it is not so bad that Wang is missing. Maybe, being anywhere is better than here. Just like Wang before his disappearance, Lok soon faces the struggle of sleeplessness. As insomnia creeps in, reality falls apart.
The storyline is patchy and crooked, but the film's success does not lie in its plot. It is Yeo’s creation and depiction of the construction site subculture that makes the film so captivating. It is in the passing moments and static encounters that shine. The short-lived friendship that blooms between Wang and Ajit, a Bangladeshi worker, is a small slice of happiness that transcends the racial segregation and loneliness of the work site. The emotional affair between Wang and Mindy, a punk cybercafé attendant, gives us insight into the hopes and dreams of these otherwise faceless individuals. The cybercafé acts as a pinnacle of insight into this subculture alone. It is a bubble of neon light in the midst of a dull landscape, offering these men an escape from their exhausting routine.
One of the most powerful scenes is when Lok, Mindy, and a group of Bangladeshi construction workers dance around a bonfire one night. Although they stand in the midst of a construction site, the distinct Singapore skyline shines in the distance. Haunting them with its presence, it represents everything that is untouchable to these individuals. They might build a country of opportunity with their bare hands, but they will never be a part of it.
The film reaches out to multiple genres, including social realism, thriller, and mystery while failing to develop any in a coherent manner. But if "film festival" was a genre in itself, it would be the only way to correctly decipher A Land Imagined. Perhaps getting the film to win abroad was the only way to gain it any traction locally, but at times, the cookie-cutter approach glistens a bit too bright. The mood of menace, dreamy landscapes, and the detached characters appear all too familiar, and in some parts could’ve been toned down. Stronger threads of developed themes would have taken Yeo’s work many steps forward, without compromising the creative body.
Award bodies however, didn't seem to mind. A Land Imagined is the first Singaporean film to win Best Film at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival. The film won 14 other awards internationally and locally.
At the local premiere, director Yeo shared that after screening the film in over 30 countries, he is proudest to screen it at home, as the film “was made for Singaporeans.” It might come as a surprise to a foreign audience that A Land Imagined is set in Singapore, but Yeo wins at making a film that also gives locals an insight into a pocket of their country most have not witnessed themselves.