A Land Imagined (Singapore/France/Netherlands, 2018) [VIFF 2018]

Yeo Siew Hua’s post-global neo noir A Land Imagined ostensibly revolves around a police detective investigating the disappearance of a Chinese migrant worker in Singapore but it’s true concern is the city-state’s multifaceted identity in a period of economic transformation. Taking the missing person device to facilitate a wider cultural enquiry has resulted in such incisive films as A Man Vanishes (1967) and Chan Is Missing (1982), although Yeo eschews the documentary aesthetic of those antecedents in favor of an increasingly dreamlike atmosphere that has more in common with the skewed alternative realities of David Lynch or Nicolas Winding Refn. It’s an enigmatic approach that certainly makes for an intriguing art-house procedural, even if Yeo ultimately raises more questions than he answers.

The jumping off point for Yeo’s rumination is Singapore’s expanding coastline, which is made from reclaimed land and has extended by 22% since 1965. Seasoned Detective Lok (Peter Yu) gets a crash course in the dark underbelly of the city-state’s economic miracle when he tasked with tracking down Wang (Liu Xiaoyi), a lowly laborer for one of the various companies involved in the reclamation project who has been missing for a week. Questioning the foreman and Wang’s dorm-mate fails to yield any leads, but a breakthrough in the case comes through retracing the worker’s steps to a seedy Internet café.

It’s around this point that Yeo facilitates a slippage in time and perspective. Recalling the transitions in John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996) whereby the camera panned around a location to seamlessly move between eras, Yeo links present and recent past in the same shot. When the detective visits a reclamation site, Yeo zooms in past Lok to show an accident that occurred there some weeks ago, introducing Wang as he injures his hand on the job and instigating an enthralling extended flashback.

We then follow Wang as he takes a less physically taxing assignment as a driver until his hand heals, develops insomnia, befriends gentle Bengali co-worker Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico) with whom he communicates in broken English, and starts regularly frequenting the Internet café where he plays first-person shooter games when not gazing at the establishment’s feisty manager Mindy (Luna Kwok). Creating a mystery-within-a-mystery, Wang turns amateur sleuth when Ajit goes missing and comes to suspect that their employer is guilty of foul play.

The social realism of the establishing scenes, which use unforgiving daylight to depict clanging large-scale industrial development is often too on-the-nose, especially when Lok incredulously asks “How can people live like that?” when confronted with dormitory conditions. However, we’re soon in luridly textured nocturnal territory that finds the future in the present, then proceeds to blur time and space. Yeo achieves this by riffing stylistically on iconography fixed in the cineaste imagination. The gleaming compositions conjured up by cinematographer Hideho Urata has a Blade Runner (1982) vibe while the Internet café is like a cyberpunk riff on the fast food stand in Chungking Express (1994) with Kwok’s tattooed Mindy as the punk equivalent of Faye Wong’s pixie. “I kind of miss those creepy eyes leering at me,” says Mindy almost wistfully when asked by Lok about Wang’s whereabouts, as if recalling an encounter from years before. Events seem to occur over a matter of weeks, but the elliptical nature of the storytelling suggests a place where a sense of time is easily lost.

Yet perhaps the most surreal scene develops from a cliché – the flirtatious Mindy asks Wang to take her out for a ride in his lorry with the pair making eyes at one another while cruising around to Teo Wei Yong’s seductive ambient synth score and end up on a man-made beach. Since the sand they are lying on is from Malaysia, they surmise that visiting reclaimed areas is like going abroad, thereby enjoying freedom of movement without a need for a passport (Wang’s is kept by his company to make sure that he completes the contract and covers the costs of travel and accommodation). It’s no wonder a Locarno jury headed by renowned globalization chronicler Jia Zhangke awarded A Land Imagined the Golden Leopard since Singapore here is similar to the theme park in The World (2004), a disorientating mishmash of East and West which ‘traps’ its less affluent workforce but nonetheless offers them new forms of distraction through a gradual process of dislocation.

Although interesting ideas abound, Yeo struggles (or refuses) to pull them into a satisfying statement on contemporary Singapore. Response to the characters and actors depends much on which perspective one believes these circumstances are being seen (or imagined) from. Despite projecting a certain doggedness, Yu is rather flat in a stock detective role as if he has wandered in from a television series. Yet if Wang is imagining Lok, this is perhaps exactly the kind of rumpled cop that the worker would visualize searching for him based on exposure to small screen dramas. Likewise, Mindy is a fantasy figure, although Kwok’s sheer magnetism, previously on display in Kaili Blues (2015), makes her perfect as the object of Wang’s fixation. Given the mystery premise, the character that one might expect to be the cipher, Wang, is actually the most developed. Credibly low-key throughout, Liu’s performance offers a quietly sympathetic portrait of the migrant experience within a film that is otherwise determined not to provide the viewer with anything remotely tangible.

A Land Imagined is showing on September 30 and October 2 at the Vancouver International Film Festival.