Singapore is 22% larger than it was in 1965, and home to twice as many people. That sort of thing doesn’t happen naturally — but, thanks to the industrial sorcery of land reclamation (a process that involves importing rock and sand from other places and using them to build out the seas), there’s almost no limit to the boundaries of urban development. Who needs oceans when you could have a globally interconnected network of strip malls, office parks, and power plants? Now that human civilization’s disastrous effect on the environment is already past the point of no return, what’s the harm in just terraforming the rest of the Earth?
The newly crowned winner of this year’s Locarno International Film Festival, Yeo Siew Hua’s “A Land Imagined” attempts to answer those questions by distilling them into an elusive dream noir that borrows from a dozen bigger movies in order to build itself into something unidentifiably new. Through that self-inflicted identity crisis, the film becomes a clever, fitfully compelling analogue for the realities of reclamation.
It begins somewhere between “Blade Runner” and “Heat,” with a humid synth drone layered over stunning wide shots of the machinery that twinkles in its sleep along the shore. Singapore has never looked so alien; it’s hard to imagine that “Crazy Rich Asians” was shot on the same tiny island, and at roughly the same time.
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The wispy, entranced Detective Lok (Peter Yu) stares out into the distance. “I remember this was all sea 30 years ago,” he says, doing his best Jake Gittes impression (this movie does for sand what “Chinatown” did for water). The other, larger cop standing next to him brings the conversation to an immediate end: “Who remembers what it was like 30 years ago?”
The two public servants have been hired to investigate the disappearance of a Chinese worker named Wang Bi Cheng, who vanished the previous week. No one seems especially concerned. Not the guy who bunks with Wang in the bed bug-infested dorms where the migrant workers try to sleep at the end of their shifts, and definitely not the company foreman, who keeps the workers’ passports in his own private safe (“for their protection”). Everybody came here, but no one is leaving.
As we first learn the facts of the case, it seems as if Yeo is trying to bottle the oblique, working-class dispossession that’s colored other recent Chinese-language films noir. The monumental “Black Coal, Thin Ice” comes to mind early and often, especially during the beguiling scene in which Lok strips naked and jogs on a treadmill, his penis slapping against his thighs. It’s an overly literal sneak peek at the stir-crazy madness that will later overwhelm this story, as the characters’ desire for escape is frustrated by the feeling that they’re all running in place. If no one is really looking for Wang, maybe it’s because they’re all jealous — dead or alive, he’s gone to a better place.
Which could be anywhere. Singapore is hardly the worst place to be poor, but this film sees it less as a living hell than it does as a dissociative purgatory; in “A Land Imagined,” it’s the kind of place that can make someone forget who they are, or who they used to be. Yeo forces that idea into focus when he abruptly jumps back in time to chronicle Wang’s last days before his disappearance.
A quiet, unexceptional man played by Liu Xiaoyi, Wang’s troubles begin when he mangles his hand on the job, befriends a Bengali co-worker (Ishtiaque Zico), and develops insomnia. That’s when he starts spending his nights at the local cyber cafe, playing first-person shooters, and making eyes at Mindy (Luna Kwok), the night manager who meshes a pixie cut with a punk attitude like a much harder version of Faye Wong’s character from “Chungking Express.” It’s hard to tell, but the large tattoo on her back looks like a pair of unused butterfly wings.
Together, the two of them flirt on the man-made beaches in the middle of the night, rolling around on the sand that Wang helped to import from Malaysia. Are they still in Singapore, or does the reclaimed land still belong to wherever it was borrowed? At what point does it become someplace new? The noir vibe melts into a more contemplative psychodrama as the characters think aloud about the mutable nature of modern identity, and the film’s central mystery dissolves into the kind of thing that can never be solved. Michael Mann’s influence is slowly usurped by that of David Lynch, as the “what” of Wang’s disappearance grows less pressing than the “why.”
Over time, cinematographer Urata Hideho’s rain-slicked exteriors are replaced by shots from inside Mindy’s cyber cafe, where Lok and Wang alike are compelled to chat with a mysterious stranger who reaches through the computer and lures them deeper into the digital realm — all that labor is spent on making Singapore a few miles bigger in every direction, but the internet is infinite. It might even be the best place to find Wang.
“A Land Imagined” is a film that’s intent on losing its own sense of self, a goal that Yeo fulfills by never allowing it to have one in the first place; he digs a rabbit-hole, and then falls right into it. It’s fascinating to watch Yeo tumble down into the depths, but eventually it starts to feel as though he’ll never hit the bottom — that he knows why his characters disappear, but is never able to fully articulate the idea that they aren’t going anywhere. It’s easier to bring the world to Singapore than it is for the workers responsible to be a part of it themselves.
“A Land Imagined” premiered at the 2018 Locarno International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.