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.
Despite the disorder that permeates Shirkers by Sandi Tan, it ultimately is a defiant ode to the gendered poetics and politics of filmmaking. Above all, it reminds us there is no future in our nostalgia, and no nostalgia in the future of our past, to recall Arthur Yap’s poem on the well-known Singaporean mourning for a past snatched too soon from us.
As a Singaporean film writer, I am acutely aware of the difficulties of breaking out of impossible censorship and a meagre amount of funds granted to independent cinema. It is rare to even see Singaporeans believe in our own artistic potential. That’s why Tan’s internationally-acclaimed work not only holds extreme cultural significance in our country, but also instills hope for the next generation of Singaporean filmmakers. For the first time, I am seeing a piece of Singaporean work talked about by my fellow colleagues here at Much Ado. It may simply be casual chatter to them, but for me this chatter reflected the visibility I have desired so much for Singaporean art. And I did not know how much I have wanted our art to be part of a simple, off-handed discussion on an international stage. Shirkers changed all that.