About a third of the way into Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined, one of the characters, Mindy (Luna Kwok), a girl who works at a cybercafé, says to Wang (Liu Xiaoyi), a migrant Chinese construction worker: “There is no need for visas. There are no borders. That’s true freedom.” She’s talking about swimming across the ocean to catch a boat and leave Singapore (where the film is set, and where both these characters feel trapped). As someone who’s been a migrant in a land not my own, I could strongly relate to the sentiment. However, I was a privileged white-collar migrant, unlike those this film speaks about. So, while I can empathise with the sense of insecurity, of your life being at the mercy of forces outside your own control, the kind of struggles faced by the migrants in this film are a far cry from any I’ve known.
They are — like Wang — largely Chinese and Bangladeshi construction workers employed by a shady company that is in the land reclamation business. These are people we wouldn’t normally associate with Singapore, but they’re essential to the country’s infrastructure. Singapore is known for its land reclamation projects, and thanks to this process of creating new land from the ocean (by filling it with sand), its land area has been increased by 23 per cent since the country’s founding, with plans for further growth.
And migrant workers, according to the director, form the overwhelming majority of the workforce for these projects. In fact, in interviews, he’s said that the film’s title is a reference to both the land of Singapore — Wang tells Mindy the sand for the reclamation comes from other South East Asian countries, with the one they are lying on being from Malaysia, to which Mindy replies, “Doesn’t that mean we are no longer in Singapore? I don’t need a boat or a plane.” — and to the demographic of the city-state, since the majority of Singaporeans today are descendants of immigrants — Yeo himself is a second-generation Singaporean.
Also, like most Singaporeans, Yeo, with his privileged background, is quite removed from the reality of these migrant workers. So the character of Lok (Peter Yu), the cop who investigates the disappearance of Wang, acts as the director’s (and our) surrogate. We see the lives, living conditions, the practical slavery of a work situation — Wang’s foreman inadvertently lets slip that they hold the workers’ passport, before quickly adding that it’s so the workers don’t lose them — and even the hopes and fears of the migrants through his eyes at first, before moving on to Wang’s perspective.
It doesn’t take long for Yeo to set the scene for us either. For instance, though Lok quickly turns his focus to find out what happened to Wang, and his Bangladeshi friend, Ajit, it’s telling that the cops are initially called in to investigate the disappearance of the company truck that was with Wang, not the man himself. Wang’s boss even expresses indignation when the cop points out that he’s not been to work for a week. That’s how much a migrant life is worth.
All of this might make A Land Imagined sound like a dry documentary, but it’s anything but. The film won the highest prize at the Locarno Film Festival (one of the longest-running and most prestigious of film festivals) as well as several other awards around the world. And it’s easy to see why. Its basic structure is that of a neo-noir mystery, framed around the disappearance and investigation, but there’s a very dream-like quality to the film — sleep and dreams are a major theme as well.
There’s a touch of Haruki Murakami in the screenplay and the way the narrative switches between the two protagonists, Lok and Wang (the first such switch is particularly impressive). There’s also a touch of Blade Runner about the film, especially the synth-heavy soundtrack, and the way the landscapes are filled with construction sites, machinery, and other paraphernalia, suggests a current-day equivalent of the dystopian cyberpunk backdrop of that classic film. Even on a small screen, this film is a treat to the senses, though I do wish it either gets a theatrical release or comes to a film festival nearby, because this film almost demands a big screen. Yeo’s film also demands repeat viewings, and for this reason, I’m glad it’s available on Netflix.
But cinematic merits aside, this is an important film that needed to be made. In one of the most striking sequences of the film, where Wang is playing an FPS video game, he tells a fellow player about how he dreamed of his own death. He says, “It was like being swallowed. Slowly sinking downwards. It was as if I was being forgotten by a kind of ignorance.” A Land Imagined needed to be made so that all the Wangs of this world are not forgotten by our ignorance.
(A Land Imagined is streaming on Netflix.)