In a particularly poignant moment from the film A Land Imagined, a world-weary detective distils the weight of existence in land-starved Singapore with a single question: “What’s the worth of a land that is capable of being forged freely at our will?” He finds no answer; the silence that meets him is as vast and bleak as the land reclamation site he looks out at.
With this scene, the film maker Yeo Siew Hua hits at the heart of many issues pertinent to Singapore today — the permanence of our land, the anonymous hands that build it, and our collective place in it.
Yeo’s treatment of these themes has moved audiences around the world since A Land Imagined debuted in 2018. It won the Golden Leopard at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival that year, making Yeo the first Singaporean to be awarded this coveted honour. The film would go on to receive nominations and awards in film festivals the world over, including the 56th Golden Horse Awards and the 29th Singapore International Film Festival.
A Land Imagined pivots on the mysterious case of two missing foreign labourers to deliver an intensely personal meditation on dreaming and existence. Introspective and measured, the film is much like its maker. An NUS Philosophy graduate, Yeo shares that his time in NUS has made an indelible impact on his filmic vision.
“Previously, I was learning the techniques of filmmaking, but I didn’t really have the chance to hone my ideas. I wasn’t able to look at a situation with a critical lens. Studying philosophy in NUS really broadened my mind. It refined the way I approached things, and it gave me the vocabulary and criticality needed to create empathy,” he says, before explaining the philosophical underpinnings of his film, such as the relationship between dreams and reality.
Despite this philosophical outlook, which infuses his story with an otherworldly, dream-like quality, Yeo is highly connected to the world. It is evident that he has spent a lot of time thinking about Singapore and grappling with its issues, one of which is the alienation of citizens in a state that keeps changing.
In A Land Imagined, this personal experience is translated into a national one, as Yeo shines a spotlight on land reclamation and its implications for the Singapore: “What does that make us a nation, that we continue constantly to grow in unnatural ways?” he muses.
In dissecting national identity, Yeo strikes on a natural tangent: that of foreign workers in Singapore, who are largely invisible to the local population despite being responsible for constructing Singapore’s land and buildings. This distance is something Yeo hopes to bridge, as he believes that there is little difference that divides us on a fundamental human level. He knows this from experience, having immersed himself in the migrant worker community for over two years, making friends with the foreign workers, eating with them, and listening to their issues and concerns.
“What is this idea of nationality that we so patriotically hold up?” he asks. “I hope to expand this idea of who we are and what makes up Singapore, who we can include in this national narrative and who is excluded from it. As a filmmaker, I want to make this story more complete.”
Yeo poignantly recalls a pivotal moment in this journey, which happened at one of the regular gigs held by the men, where they would gather to dance and sing uninhibitedly over the strains of the violin, flute and drums, which were played by the budding musicians among them.
“As there was a language barrier at times, dancing and music-making was a great way for us to communicate and interact. As I danced, after a while I felt we were all just bodies moving in a crowd. All the labels – foreign worker, local – just fell apart.”