Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined is a strange beast, beginning as a straightforward, noir-inflected procedural before gradually giving way to a strange, dreamlike reverie, as the narrative contorts itself. Call it a long day’s journey into night. Set in Singapore, Detective Lok (Peter Yu) is investigating the disappearance of Wang (Liu Xiaoyi), a Chinese dayworker who’s been posted at a coastal land reclamation site. As the film makes clear, Singapore’s land mass has grown substantially over the years, as the nation has imported sand and built up its coastline, creating new areas for development. But, as A Land Imagined shows, this is being built literally on the backs of an immigrant work force, while the imported sand (from Vietnam, Malaysia, and Cambodia) seems to suggest a kind of existential loss of national identity. Indeed, the shoreline, and the ocean, become a free-floating metaphor throughout this film, simultaneously representing a concrete symbol of worker oppression, but also an escape to distant lands, a kind of unknowable void.
Yeo creates an almost neorealist milieu during the day, focused on crystal clear images and textures — sand, dirt, the rust on heavy machinery, and the squalid, claustrophobic living conditions of the workers. But the nighttime becomes softer, fuzzier, dappled with neon hues and drenched in misty rain.
Yeo structures his film as three parts, and eventually blurs the lines between these specific delineations. Part one follows Lok as he searches for Wang, investigating the job site and the dormitories that the foreign workers live in; the second part is largely a flashback to Wang’s days before disappearing; and the third returns to Lok, but now the lines between reality and a somnambulant dream state have become increasingly unclear. Yeo does strange things with his narrative, creating a vague sense of unease, a kind of deja vu, as Lok and Wang become symbolic doppelgängers. The director also draws a clear, bifurcated distinction between day and night. With cinematographer Hideoho Urata, Yeo creates an almost neorealist milieu during the day, focused on crystal clear images and textures — sand, dirt, the rust on heavy machinery, and the squalid, claustrophobic living conditions of the workers. But the nighttime becomes softer, fuzzier, dappled with neon hues and drenched in misty rain. Wang frequents an all-night internet cafe, replete with online gaming and pornography, run by a mysterious woman (Yue Guo) who both Wang and Lok become fascinated with. Wang spends his time playing a first-person shooter video game and communicating with someone, somewhere, via headphones. Is he being indoctrinated into something? There’s a profoundly disorienting moment here, as Yeo films a closeup of a computer monitor while a game level starts to glitch, stuttering into multiple layers and levels of pixelated graphics. It’s a stunning sequence, a kind of skeleton key for Yeo’s symbolic agenda. The system is failing, locking up, not so much collapsing in on itself as duplicating endlessly, on a loop. Even if you can make-out the walls, and a ceiling, the structure is not sound. It’s a profound metaphor for any societal and economic system built on the oppression of its people, trying to lay a foundation on a constantly shifting surface. The structure is not sound.
You can currently stream Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined on Netflix.