Saturday, November 30, 2019

Submitted by Singapore: A Land Imagined

The sand is from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodian. The workers are from Bangladesh and China. However, the crime and the film are definitely Singaporean. This season, all Netflix awards buzz focuses on The Irishman, but they are also carrying all of Singapore’s Oscar hopes and dreams. The local construction industry might not have been overly thrilled about it, but Singapore opted for Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined as its official international feature film submission for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Lok is a massively jaded cop, who is almost as surprised by his efforts to find missing Chinese migrant worker Wang Bi-cheng, as the dodgy land reclamation company that employed him. Frankly, they think they did well by Wang when they kept him on as a driver at half-pay when his arm was injured in an industrial accident. It was during that time Wang befriended Ajit, one of the Bangladeshi workers, who also mysteriously disappeared.

As we see in flashbacks, Lok’s investigation of Wang’s disappearance retraces the steps the Chinese worker’s efforts to find his Bangladeshi friend. In fact, Lok starts to feel an affinity for Wang, due to their mutual insomnia. Clearly, the company is up to its neck in shading dealings, but Mindy, the goth femme fatale managing the neighboring internet parlor is decidedly no angel either.

Eventually, the film takes a rather Robbe-Grillet-like turn, as the personas of the cop and the subject of his investigation start to blend together. Yet, in many ways Land Imagined is a noir in the B. Traven tradition. The only thing more dangerous than the crooked system for the trapped laborers are their own character failings.

Pete Yu is convincingly gaunt and hollowed-out inside as Lok and Liu Xiaoyi creates a compelling portrait of emasculated resentment and intensity as Wang. Yet, as is nearly always the case in good film noirs, the most interested parts are reserved for the colorful supporting cast. Guo Yue (a.k.a. Luna Kwok, probably best known for Kaili Blues) takes a star-making turn as the seductive but almost anti-social Mindy. Smoldering temptress roles are rarely this complicated. Likewise, Ishtiaque Zico is terrific as Ajit, especially in his final, devastating scene.

A Land Imagined probably has no realistic hope for an Oscar nomination, because the third act will absolutely befuddle Academy voters, who prefer their films to be as simplistic as their politics. Regardless, the more aesthetically adventurous will appreciate it dreamy vibe and the striking cinematography of Hideho Urata (who also shot the science fiction masterwork, The Clone Returns Home). Highly recommended for fans of postmodern noirs, A Land Imagined now streams on Netflix.