After Yeo Siew Hua and his A LAND IMAGINED won Golden Leopard at 71st Locarno Film Festival, Singapore cinema finally awaited some international recognition. It was followed by a success back home, when it was awarded a Best Asian Feature Film award at Singapore’s SIFF. It not only gave Yeo some well deserved credit, but it might have actually helped avoiding the domestic censorship, as the film has just premiered in Singapore.
A LAND IMAGINED tackles Singapore’s social reality, where immigrants are integral part of it. It would be another social realism biopic of everyman vs. system, if it wasn’t for dreamy narrative and almost fanciful perception of one’s existence perceived through a seemingly timeless game of Counter Strike 1.6. Yeo builds up a bridge between cinematic dimension – where dreams and reality come as one – and a dispute of Singapore’s modernity. In all of that, one may ask: what does Singapore dream of?
Yeo brings up a story of a detective Lok looking for two missing immigrants working at a land reclamation site, Chinese Wang Bi Cheng and a Bangladeshi Ajit. Firstly, told from an officer perspective, later on conveys into a tale of friendship between immigrants, ending up being a linear story about each other’s dreams. But what distinguish Yeo’s style from any other magical-realism takes, is a glitchy neo-noir that bring Counter Strike sequences. It won’t just refer to symbolism of dreaming – once dead in the game, one can drift just like in out of body experience – and emphasizing the alienation of virtual reality, but also stands as a solid reference to land reclamation itself. After all, they play on De_Dust2 map, and this dust may be the one from the imported sand that Singapore is built of.
What Yeo discusses within film universe is land reclamation in his country. Sand is used to expand the city-state’s limited area of usable and natural land. Singapore’s thirst of sand made it the biggest importer of this resource in the world. It serves as an immigration metaphor as well – sand is imported from surrounding countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Vietnam. So far, its number has reached six digits. Singapore’s industrialization and modernization significantly influenced environment and shore’s ecosystem, including Malaysian livelihoods of fishermen, as well as marine habitats.
Since reclaiming its independence in 1965, island-country increased its size by over 20%. Recent progress has been achieved thanks to illegally employed immigrants, underpaid and marginalised. On the other hand, Singaporean government seems to hide in the sandstorm when it comes to sources, claiming that it’s being bought from approved sources, hence the initial controversy about the film and fear of potential censorship. Even though Singapore is getting bigger and bigger, so is the gap between its inhabitants. The question to address would be defining borders of human relationships, instead of country ones.
Yeo portrays his country differently than notoriously brought up in its context CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018), but it doesn’t mean they are not an existing problem, nor they not appear in the film. Locarno recipient’s vision, although similar in its depicting to another Asian festival winner, Thai MANTA RAY (2018), is merely set among typical for Singapore’s landscape skyscrapers. Instead, he focuses on observing urban tissue from above, during night, from a viewpoint of obscure immigrants’ apartments and long forgotten cybercafes where they sleeplessly lurk into. This noir style, strengthen with a dark jazzy ambience, enables him to use genre motifs such as troubled detective and enigmatic femme fatale in order to link audience with a matter of land reclamation.
If Singapore consists of dreams, these would be made of Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and Bangladesh. Just as the sand coming from these countries, just as the recurring scenes of immigrants dancing together like there is no tomorrow – and it might not be – the identity of city-island, this global hub, is complicated to say the least. But what fills me with hope, is that Singapore finally started dreaming in its own film language. And censorship? Well, it will need to bite the dust this time.