Earlier this week, the Academy upheld its ruling regarding Oscar eligibility for Netflix-distributed films, continuing to inadvertently support Netflix’s nonchalant approach to distributing the foreign films it acquires. While it continues to prove its monetary influence at film festivals, Netflix continues to poorly advertise its festival acquisitions in favor of its high-profile transactions or original content.
Unfortunately, this directly affects the winner of the 2018 Golden Leopard, Siew Hua Yeo, and his film “A Land Imagined.” The movie is a neon-soaked, neo-noir that blends his social commentary on Singapore’s commercial building industry with a mystery thriller about the disappearance of a migrant worker. Netflix’s acquisition and lack of advertisement for this film guarantees that, while the film is accessible in the U.S., its success during its limited festival run will not translate to American home viewing.
Yeo’s movie follows a police detective, Lok, through his sleepless investigation of the disappearance of Wang, a Chinese migrant worker for a land reclamation site, and his journey through the blurry border between commercial development and migrant exploitation. As Lok tumbles down the abyss of reality through his numerous nights at the local internet cafe, his narrative blends together with Wang’s and the line between dream and reality fades away.
While Lok’s investigation is the focal point of the film, the majority of the narrative follows Wang through his discovery of the treacherous and disturbing nature of the treatment of his coworkers on the land reclamation site. Due to Singapore’s exponentially increasing population, commercial businesses began to take sand from surrounding countries and build out the coastline to create more real estate property. This process is dangerous, and due to the high-profile nature of the companies involved, land reclamation is often done by migrant workers.
The exploitation of the workers is clear throughout the film, but rather than providing a complete critique of this borderline slavery, Yeo focuses the film on exploring the lack of humanity of land reclamation.
Both Lok and Wang spend their sleepless nights interacting with the owner of an internet cafe, Mindy, playing a video game that resembles Counter-Strike. These are the scenes in which Peter Yu, who plays Lok, and Liu Xiaoyi, who plays Wang, are really able to display their acting talent. Yeo crafts a mood that fits neatly within the confines of the neo-noir genre, but the dream-like vibe of the film would not have been successful without Yu and Xiaoyi.
While the film is reminiscent of others within the neo-noir genre to the point that it seems Yeo is copying more experienced filmmakers, the movie perfectly mirrors each of its main characters as they fall into a bottomless pit in their search for meaning in a meaningless world. Yeo attempts to cover a wide range of differing topics and never successfully latches onto one as each seems to slowly melt away into the abyss of the film.
This descent into the infinite oblivion within oneself set against the backdrop of commercial land reclamation may be a futile journey, yet Yeo’s technical ability makes this descent an enjoyable one.