Award-winning Singapore film described as a neo-noir with migrant workers, land reclamation and LAN gaming

Crazy Rich Asians may be all about the disgusting extravagance of the uber-wealthy in Singapore, but what about the people on the other end of the spectrum? A Land Imagined — a film by Singaporean writer-director Yeo Siew Hua — doesn’t have the monetary and marketing backing of Hollywood but it already brought home an award in the form of Locarno Film Festival’s top prize.

The man behind 2009’s In the House of Straw and 2014 music documentary The Obs: A Singapore Story scored the Swiss festival’s prestigious Golden Leopard Award on Saturday, beating out 292 other films in the running.

“I am quite speechless, I was only just given this and told by the festival director that we won the Golden Leopard, and I am overjoyed,” said Yeo in an interview following his win. The former student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Media Studies hopes that his win in the festival’s 71st iteration could help inspire others too.

But what exactly is A Land Imagined about? It’s a contemporary noir film set in Singapore that trails a jaded cop on his investigations involving a missing Chinese migrant laborer at a land reclamation site. We get to see the migrant worker himself in the last days prior to his disappearance as he befriends a Bangladeshi worker and spends his nights in a LAN gaming cafe, where he meets a seductive night manager.

The film takes on a surreal, hyper-stylised order, and as Yeo himself describes, “moves between different realms of the virtual and reality”. Woven into the story is a look into the darker side of life in Singapore, including the exploitation of migrant laborers, the seedy things that take place in the city’s underbelly, as well as the relentless effort to expand the country’s landmass using foreign sand.

Though Yeo clinched the prestigious award, various reviewers believe that A Land Imagined might be too niche for mainstream audiences. Variety’s Jay Weissberg calls it a film that “privileges style over coherence”; The Hollywood Reporter’s Boyd van Hoeij wrote about how it’s hard to care about the characters and the situation they find themselves in; IndieWire’s David Ehrlich comments that Yeo is never able to “fully articulate the idea that (his characters) aren’t going anywhere”. Nonetheless, all agree that A Land Imagined is an ambitious mix of film genres that is shot exceedingly well.

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