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A LAND IMAGINED (2018) review

March 20, 2019

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written by: Siew Hua Yeo
produced by: Fran Borgia, Gary Goh, Dennis Vaslin & Jean-Laurent Csinidis
directed by: Siew Hua Yeo
rated: not rated
runtime: 95 min.
U.S. release date: March 20, 2019 (AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL, Asian Pop-Up Film Festival) & April 12, 2019 (Netflix)

 

With its dreamlike visuals that present a construction site of all places in an unexpectedly artful manner, the luminous “A Land Imagined” captured my attention right from the start. Anytime a film can shed a new light on a location we would typically have considered uninteresting, making it an intriguing (evocative even) environment, than it’s a film that’s doing something different and unique, which is all too rare. Granted, the latest film from Singaporian writer/director Yeo Siew Hua definitely brings to mind work from other filmmakers and that’s just fine, to be expected even, since the journey he takes viewers on becomes more and more absorbing as this neo-noir unfolds. There’s a mysterious magnetism at work here that’s hard to pinpoint, giving us another reason to stick around to see how it all plays out.

Set along the man-made coasts of industrial Singapore, the story follows Lok (Peter Yu) an observant albeit weary detective who’s looking into the disappearance of a missing Chinese migrant laborer named Wang Bi Cheng (Liu Xiaoyi) about a week ago. Neither of his employers at the reclamation site, Foreman Lee (George Low) or nephew Jason (Jack Tan) are especially concerned that this employee remains MIA and they also don’t want any trouble. It turns out Wang’s hand was mangled in a work-related accident and just as he’s about to be let go, he’s offered a position as a driver for the truck that carries migrant workers, one of whom is Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico) who Wang befriends after he assists in changing a plate tire on the side of the road. When Ajit disappears later on, Wang attempts to track down what exactly happened to his friend, all while Lok is still trying to figure out what happened to Wang.

 

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There are certain similarities in the respective paths that Lok and Wang embark on as they maneuver around each other, despite the two being decidedly different characters. Each of them comes across as restless and lost on their own and somewhat introverted in their interactions with others. Being a detective, Lok is a little more outgoing, someone who can study a situation and the people in it. As he goes about his investigation, Lok seems taken aback when he becomes aware of the shocking way in which Wang and his fellow coworkers live alongside each other in dormitories provided by their workplace which sees several men crammed into one room as they sleep on top of each other. Both men also suffer from insomnia, which leads Wang to the 24-hour cyber cafe that he can see from his window. Wang gradually begins to interact with Mindy (Luna Kwok), the surly night manager there, where he wastes away hours playing first-person shooter video games while getting ensnarled in a tangled web of mystery and lies a mysterious online gamer weaves. When it seems this mystery man may somehow know what happened to the still-missing Ajit, it increases Wang’s anxiety and paranoia.

Much of “A Land Imagined” is shot in the evening, either near sunset or late at night, when various artificial indoor or outdoor lights illuminate these lonesome characters. Production designer James Page and cinematographer Hideo Urata create a wholly absorbing aesthetic, whether they are inside the cybercafe with its screens, mirrors and distinctive headphones, but even the scenes that are shot during the day, such as the harsh and dusty construction sites, have a tantalizing draw to them. Whether the environments are expansive or claustrophobic, it feels like the characters are getting lost and forgotten, as it drifting along in a dreamscape that only they know about.

 

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There’s a lot more going in “A Land Imagined” than these two main characters and Yeo makes deliberate decisions to include ancillary characters that help build the world he’s establishing. There are curious supporting roles that barely get any screen time, but are no less effective, like the young Chinese migrant worker in an orange worksuit who climbs a tower at the construction site as the film opens. We’re not sure what he’s doing or why, but later on Yeo sheds some light on that particular scene.

There are also enlightening themes and ideas being touched upon throughout the film, some of which explain the title of the film. Most intriguing is how the film’s location plays a powerful role in the matter of identity with the land reclamation taking rock and sand from neighboring Asian spots like Malaysia in ord out the seas of Singapore, essentially restructuring the boundaries of the land and changing urban development. As this land is populated with office parks, strip malls and power plants, one can’t help but wonder what effects this has on the environment as well as the identity of a nation, which is something that is subtlely touched upon during a late night discussion on the beach between Wang and Mindy in which they dream of escaping their environment. The sand the pair are laying on is part of a man-made beach the someone envisioned and created, but the question then becomes whether or not they should have.

 

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Viewing “A Land Imagined” once is a real treat on many levels, but this is a film that will definitely benefit from multiple viewings. Amid the landscape of building and rebuilding there is an aura of sleeplessness and loneliness, and Yeo does a remarkable job and offering a transfixing viewing experience in which every corner of every meticulous frame offers something tantalizing. This is an exciting and thrilling film that presents Singapore in a very different way.

“A Land Imagined” won the 2018 Golden Leopard Prize at the Locarno Film Festival and the Best Film Prize at the Asian Feature Film Competition Season of the Singapore international Film Festival last year. Recently, the film won the Nepal International Film Festival”s grand prize award for Best Feature Film. It’s definitely my favorite film from the current season of the Asian Pop-Up Cinema by Sophia’s Choice. Click here for more about the festival.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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