Chances are you haven’t heard the name Yeo Siew Hua before this summer. The young filmmaker from Singapore had had only one narrative feature to his name after all. But Yeo broke out in a major way in August, when his sophomore narrative feature A Land Imagined won the Golden Leopard at the 71st edition of the Locarno Film Festival, one of the oldest and most prestigious of its kind, from a jury chaired by none other than Jia Zhangke that also included Sean Baker. (See our review here.)
The winning streak of the film continued as it again picked up the top prize at the second annual El Gouna International Film Festival in Egypt last week.
We spoke with the writer-director of this narratively and stylistically entrancing film at the third stop of its festival tour in Hamburg (it has 17 more destinations to cover in the next two months), where we talked about filmmakers that he’s a fan of, different philosophies of dreams and the part of Singapore where you won’t find any Crazy Rich Asians.
Where did the initial idea for the film come from?
It has a lot to do with my own fascination with land reclamation. Singapore is a country that has been reclaiming land since its founding some fifty years ago, and even further back during the colonial period. Once upon a time, there used to be hills and mountains in Singapore. Now it’s completely flat. We literally took out all the mountains to create land space. If you think about it, this whole island is engineered, contrived. For me it feels like I live in a country that’s constantly reinventing itself. So that was the starting point.
Singapore also buys sand from a lot of South East Asian countries. It has the money, and spends it on soil and sand in order to further extend its territory. So this practice doesn’t just change Singapore, but also these other countries.
Also, in terms of the makeup of the Singaporean population, technically speaking we’re all migrants. I’m only a second-generation Singaporean. We all came from someplace else. So you could say even our demographic is imagined.
And you decided to make the film about a very specific part of the demographic.
When I really started to research land reclamation, I realized 99.9% of the construction industry consist of work force from other countries in the region, particularly Bangladesh, China, Myanmar and Thailand. On my trips to the western part of Singapore, which is this industrial area that most Singaporeans never go, I encountered these migrant workers. Once I got to know them, befriended them, I realized there’s no turning back, this story had to be about them, the difficulties they faced and also their dreams and hopes. So I think that opened up the drama aspect of the film.
But at the same time, I did not want to just make a harsh, dark drama, because then I would just be feeding back into the simplistic rhetoric of migrant workers being oppressed. For me it should be much more than that. The point is to see them as humans, just like me and you. We’re all here to live our lives.
Presumably you shot on location?
Yes, we shot on location. There are two main locations. One is the industrial west, where most of the Bangladeshi dormitories are. And then there’s this place called Geylang, which is not in the west but where many of the Chinese workers live. It’s also the red-light district, where a lot of activities go on at night, including these cyber cafés. The story took off for me after I’ve been to and experienced these locations.
For example, I was trying to write a character who’s having anxiety problems and cannot sleep. I knew I didn’t want the film to be another sleazy urban film about sex but about someone trying to connect. So this character ended up finding other people at this cyber café, which is the only place that’s open 24/7.
And isn’t cyber space itself also “a land imagined”?
Yeah, the virtual space is a part of all our lives now. A space that is even more malleable and illusory. At its heart this film deals with a certain social detachment. The connection this character finds at the cyber café is also a kind of disconnection because it’s an alienating experience. So conceptually this space is a liminal space. It’s neither night nor day, it’s somewhere between connection and disconnection.
Coming back to the physical locations, you mentioned one being in the west of Singapore.
Yes, that’s where most of the constructions sites, sand quarries, and the Bangladeshi dormitories are.
From the looks of it, that’s not where the Crazy Rich Asians of Singapore live?
No, it definitely is not. It’s hidden even from the Singaporeans themselves. After I became friends with the workers living there, I went back regularly to visit them, to spend time with them in the middle of nowhere. I later decided to start a little tour and invite my artist friends to go there and join me on the weekends. People generally have no access to that part of the island and, unless you’re doing a project, have no business being there at all.
For me it’s important to show this side of Singapore, which is, on many levels, deliberately kept from the world so that the tourists only see the sleek, pretty side. Cinematically you never see that other side.
What was the biggest challenge in writing the screenplay?
The fact that the characters in this film are contextually so far removed from myself. I’m a filmmaker from the upper-middle class and belong to the ethnic majority of the country. I’m very privileged on many levels. But now I had to represent and give voice to people whose lives are nothing like mine. Finding out a way to do it authentically really took time.
The character of the police detective, who’s middle-class himself and probably more relatable to the general audience, eventually became a vehicle for me to find my way into the film.
Also, I’m someone who likes to experiment with cinematic forms. I didn’t want to tell this story as a straight, social-realist drama or a documentary – although my previous film was a documentary so there’s definitely a documentarian in me as well. But for this project I tried to infuse these different elements and create something new.
Speaking of documentaries, the film features news footage of a Chinese worker threatening suicide to demand payment owed by his employer. Was that actual news?
We reenacted and shot the scene for the film but the incident really happened. It was not widely reported in the mainstream media, because it goes against the conventional rhetoric of “Look, all these migrant workers who come to Singapore earn so much more here than where they came from. They ought to count themselves lucky.” But I was like “Wait up, there’s a lot more going on.” So this incident was also a big inspiration for me.
Is it easy to get a film made in Singapore?
Financing is difficult. Even though Singapore is an overall affluent country, it doesn’t have that much cultural funding. I did manage to get some talent development money for this film, but we still needed to do a co-production, meaning pitching it to the French and the Dutch to slowly get the financing in place. There’s probably more local funding that goes into “commercial” films – for whatever reason.
Would you say there’s a film industry in Singapore?
It’s hard to say that about most Southeast Asian countries. The markets are at least bigger in Indonesia and Thailand. Singapore, by comparison, is a very small market. So if you do a Mandarin-language film, you’ll still be dependent on the whole Mandarin-speaking market. If it’s a Malay-language film, the larger Malay-speaking market. So there isn’t a self-sustaining commercial industry and it’s of course even harder to do non-commercial films.
What about the infrastructure? Were you able to find cast and crew locally?
Partially. A lot of my cast are from China or Bangladesh. But the two male leads are both local actors. The actor Liu Xiaoyi, who plays Wang in the film, is originally from China but moved to Singapore more than ten years ago and is doing theater work there. So he also has that experience of being a migrant. And Peter Yu, who plays the detective Lok, is a TV actor who’d stopped acting for a long time, this was kind of his comeback role.
You can also find crew in Singapore, I mean there’s work in TV, internet and other media, it’s just less in terms of film.
What about the state of arthouse cinema there? I remember when Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo won the Camera d’Or in 2013.
I belong to a film collective called “13 Little Pictures” and we make small-budget, experimental films. So smaller films are being made but they don’t travel as much. And there are also some mid-budget films, like the two that went to Cannes in 2016: The Apprentice and this other one that went under the radar a little bit but to me was an amazing Singaporean film called A Yellow Bird. Both of which were done by my producer. So some films are still getting made, but whether they can make headlines or be seen and distributed, that’s a whole different story.
Which filmmakers would you call your influences, in general and on this film?
I don’t think I had any point of reference when I was making this film. I mean I’m a follower or fan of filmmakers like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and, from Singapore, someone I really look up to, Ho Tzu Nyen, whose film Here also screened in Cannes. But I don’t know if any of them had any direct influence on this film. I do think the film is steeped in the general tradition of noir.
Numerous reviews noted a touch of Lynch in A Land Imagined. I guess that wasn’t a conscious reference either?
No. I mean of course I’ve seen his films and I take this kind of comparison as a huge compliment. But it was important to me that the film didn’t become an overly artistic construct where the viewer might go “Oh, what is that all about?” Ultimately, I wanted to say something with the film. If people don’t get that, then I’ve failed. So I guess you can call the shifting of identities between the characters or the blurring of dream and reality a Lynchian effect. But the film should communicate something specific.
Specifically about the way you approached dreams versus reality, I noticed something quite different from what we are used to seeing in films of a similar nature. Can you talk about that?
Oftentimes when we talk about the blurring of dreams and reality, we approach it from a Western conception of dreams, or questions like “Is this real or not? Is my reality what it seems?” It’s based on a skepticism about what is real. About whether one can trust or believe this illusory world. You see a lot of this in Western literature or films.
I studied philosophy and subscribed to the teachings of Zhuangzi (4th century BC Chinese philosopher). And the way I understood Chinese philosophy of dreams, it’s really quite different. It’s not about “Am I dreaming?” but about the ability to dream, or more precisely, the ability to dream that which is beyond and outside yourself. The dream that feels so real is our ability to go beyond ourselves, to transcend. The philosophy of Zhuangzi is always about dreaming outside the confines of your context. And that, to me, is also the ability to transform.
This film also deals with the transformation of people. When you finally understand the “other”, you lose yourself and momentarily become them. Those scenes of the workers singing and dancing reflect my experience having fun with them. Sometimes while we were dancing, I didn’t feel like “me” and they didn’t feel like “them”. We were just bodies. We’re all the same. Whatever divide that existed between us fell away. That was the most beautiful thing to me.
So that was the philosophical element behind the film, which I tried to include even with this three-act structure. We start with this detective who, at first we don’t really understand why he even cares about finding these two missing workers. Then we see the lives of these people and by the time we come to the third act, we start to see the two come together, or fold into each other. My hope is that by that time, the audience will be in on it. They will start to root for the detective and want him to solve the case.
What was it like to win Locarno?
Truly shocking (laughs). It was the first time a Singaporean film was even in the main competition at Locarno, so we went with no expectations. And there were heavyweights in the lineup, people that I’m a fan of. So I really was not expecting to win. When I heard about it, I was overjoyed of course.
Did you get to hang out with the jury? You know, folks like Jia Zhangke and Sean Baker.
Yeah, they all came up to me and said encouraging things like “Good job” and that they looked forward to my next project. It was a very nice recognition for the film.
Do you have your next project lined up already?
Yes, it’s already in the works. It’s something that was developed concurrently with A Land Imagined called Stranger Eyes and it will be at the Busan Asian Project Market next week. I developed it in this new lab called the “South East Asian Fiction Film Lab”. Roughly it’s about surveillance, or the subjectivity of the gaze. It’s about the ability to see others and how seeing is not just a passive activity, that oftentimes in seeing others you end up seeing yourself.
Will it also be a thriller or more of a straight drama?
I think there will always be some genre element in my films. I like to play around with boundaries, with different forms of cinema.
Before we go: what types of films did you watch growing up in Singapore? Did you watch more Hollywood or Asian films?
I consume a lot of films and I don’t discriminate. I watch Marvel films just as I watch Ozu films and I pay the same amount of attention to each of them. In Singapore we do get a lot of films coming our way. There are a lot of festivals. There used to be a very nice cinematheque in Singapore which unfortunately has closed down – I’m very angry about it – that’s where I first saw Parajanov’s films. So I don’t necessarily make that distinction between Hollywood films and Singaporean films. Ultimately we’re all part of world cinema. So what’s important to me is to see what we can offer to this larger cinematic conversation. Masters from South East Asia like Trần Anh Hùng, Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Lav Diaz have already started it, so now the question is how do we make the landscape interesting and expand the horizon for cinema from this part of the world.
A Land Imagined screened at the Hamburg International Film Festival.