“I remember when this was all sea, 30 years ago,” says Detective Lok (Peter Yu) in the first line of Yeo Siew Hua’s Locarno Festival Golden Leopard winning film A Land Imagined - a musing that sets the tone for the film to follow. “It is nothing but reclaimed land now,” an empire of towering skyscrapers and beaches built from imported sand. A visually resplendent, effectively directed neo-noir with a twist, the film looks at what lies beneath Singapore’s ever transforming landscape: the people—rarely seen on screen—that slip between the cracks of the machine.
Singapore as it is depicted here may seem alien, a dystopian hotbed of rain-soaked cityscapes, dirty neons and smoky skylines, but the story seems at first to be a familiar one. Lok, a worn down, sleep-deprived cop is in search of a lost man, a migrant worker, Wang Bi Cheng (Liu Xiaoyi), who disappeared in mysterious circumstances, similarly sleepless and broken, last seen wandering with Mindy (Luna Kwok), a punkish cafe-worker who brightens his nights. As the plot thickens, reality drifts from recognisability and the character’s minds and the mutating territories they inhabit come to seem equally malleable. Neither character knows who or what they are looking for, nor what is real or what is a waking dream.
A hazy, hallucinogenic and hard-edged film—pitched somewhere between contemporary crime thriller, romantic psychodrama and social-realist city portrait—A Land Imagined remains, by design, hard to get a grasp on, but at no point does it slip entirely into futurist fantasy. This is a supremely confident, slippery and surreal film, but also one centred in contemporary capitalist reality. In a place growing so rapidly that borders between land and sea are no longer an obstacle to expansion, people disappear without trace and no-one notices, let alone has time to look for them.
Originally appeared in the catalogue for London East Asian Film Festival 2018.