Two officers stand together, smoking cigarettes, and ruminating over Singapore’s land reclamation. As they gaze over the water at the towering metallic behemoths of industry on the horizon, they ruminate on Singapore’s land expansion over 30 years and how it doesn’t seem to be stopping, just like their investigation into two missing migrant workers. One asks why they are even looking for people that no one cares about. Director Yeo Siew Hua uses his latest film, A Land Imagined, to make you care about those that go ignored and those whose disappearances go investigated through a dreamy noir.
This is not the wealthy Singapore we typically see; this is industrial Singapore that is full of migrant workers living in cramped dorms. This is a Singapore that feels akin to the dystopic worlds of Ghost in the Shell or Blade Runner. Police investigator Lok moves through this environment in search of a missing migrant worker, Wang. Wang, injured on a land reclamation site and suffering from insomnia, seeks some kind of relief in an internet cafe, awash in neon colors and full of a cacophony of clacking keys and whirring computer fans. He is searching for connection, for a friend, in a place where he doesn’t know anyone. But his search for friendship goes awry and Lok must try to find out just exactly what’s happening at these work sites.
As the film progresses, the narrative becomes more and more disjointed, with the barrier between reality and dream becoming blurred. Both Wang and Lok are the sleepless insomniacs who are slowly losing their grounding in reality. Their sleeplessness and isolation seems to bring them together, connected by their lack of social connections, lost in a liminal space where they are not awake, yet not asleep. A Land Imagined creates an unimaginable loneliness, from Wang and Lok to Mindy, an internet cafe worker. All three yearn for something more, but they don’t exactly know what. All they know is that they need change, something to fill a void they feel in themselves.
This loneliness is emphasized by a tension between nature and the manmade—there is never a moment of silence, so this loneliness seems even more isolating in a world that can never quieten down. While Wang and Mindy are on a beach, the whirring of helicopters and horns of boats cut through the air. As Wang tries to fall asleep, car horns blare and people yell on the street. There is never a moment of silence, with man-made sounds constantly invading the film’s soundscape. It is almost anxiety-inducing—there is no escaping modernity, even in the solitude of the beach.
This tension is also felt in the “natural” landscape. As Wang and Mindy lay on the beach, panting from exertion, they begin to talk about the sand. It becomes apparent that Singapore is made up of other countries, from the sands of Cambodia to the workers of China and Bangladesh. It is a country that relies on others to expand its land mass so it can continue to take in more, with no concept of the consequences or the toll it takes on its workforce.
The final moment of catharsis is something so beautifully melancholy that it may just move you to tears. Beautifully melancholy is the perfect phrase to describe Hua’s A Land Imagined. He creates such a mesmerizing world from the exploitation of labor in land reclamation. By zeroing in on his characters, Siew Hua is able to create a piece of neo-noir that is about loneliness, searching for connection, and what really lies beneath the sand.
A Land Imagined is screening Wednesday, March 20, as part of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema.