Award-winning director Yeo Siew Hua on the Singaporean identity, and what it means to be an inclusive society

SINGAPORE — We are sitting in a room in The Arts House, an oasis of calm and coolness in comparison to the sweltering heat outside, and Yeo Siew Hua is explaining how it took him two years of spending time with migrant workers before he felt comfortable enough to feature them in his award-winning film, A Land Imagined.

A Land Imagined (which is on Netflix, by the way) tells the story of a police investigator tasked with finding a missing migrant worker, and the film interweaves themes of human connection, alienation and migrant issues. It won international acclaim at film festivals, most notably clinching the Golden Leopard Grand Prize at the Locarno Film Festival in 2018.

In "A Land Imagined", police investigator Lok is searching for missing migrant worker Wang, who has had a worksite accident and is anxious about being sent back home. (Photo: Akanga Film Asia)
In "A Land Imagined", police investigator Lok is searching for missing migrant worker Wang, who has had a worksite accident and is anxious about being sent back home. (Photo: Akanga Film Asia)

Siew Hua was one of the featured panellists at this year’s LumiNation, a festival at the Arts House held on 15-18 August which explored the Singapore identity. He comes across a little soft-spoken but extremely thoughtful, and one gets a sense of a genuine desire to give a voice to a section of Singapore that is not well represented in the mainstream.

Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore had a chat with Siew Hua on the Singaporean identity, and what it means to be an inclusive society.

Singapore is not really a place where it’s easy to find familial support for your chosen path as a director. What motivated you to study cinema and become a filmmaker?

When I got into cinema 15 years ago, it was an even less accepting climate for a young person trying to do films or to commit themselves to the idea of filmmaking. It was a bit of a struggle because your family will ask what your prospects are. But I think for me it was a mysterious calling. The easy word to use is that it’s a passion, but at the same time it was not a eureka moment for me, it’s not as though I was born to make film. I don’t really believe in that idea, but at least there was enough interest for me to want to take a leap of faith.

I still promised my parents that I would go get a degree after I do this – at that point in time there was only one film school, and that was Ngee Ann Polytechnic, and that was a diploma course. The more I tried it out, the more I got acknowledged and recognised for something that I enjoyed and that I could do well. And then I started to feel that I had something to say, and in my own voice in my own unique way, so I stuck to it.

Was there a turning point for you; did you come out of a particular movie saying this is what I want to do?

It was more the other way around, where I was watching local films, and I liked them, but there were some things that were not being done in the local film scene. I thought, okay, maybe I can contribute to what I find is missing. So it’s more of an absence of a certain kind of cinema that I like.

So it came out of a need to see what you wanted to see?

At the same time to also experiment on what I wanted to do with the art form.

Award-winning Singapore filmmaker Yeo Siew Hua (Photo: Carla Orrego Veliz)
Award-winning Singapore filmmaker Yeo Siew Hua (Photo: Carla Orrego Veliz)

The theme of LumiNation this year is “Building Identities”. You’ve been to quite a few film festivals overseas. How does the rest of the world view us and does that align with what you think Singapore’s identify is like?

There’s the cinema world, and there’s the “rest of the world”-world, which of course sees Singapore as a prosperous society. Wherever I go, people talk about how Singapore is a very well-to-do, affluent, prosperous society. And that picture is true, except that it’s not complete on many levels.

We are very diverse, and in Singapore cinema, the truth of the matter is that we don’t have so many films that travel and that have many people get to see it. So of course, you already have some of the films in the last ten years that are travelling, but it’s still relatively little.

When audiences saw A Land Imagined they really saw a very different side of Singapore. I think aside from the more affluent, postcard kind of version of Singapore, people don’t really have a very good understanding of it. And my film is also just one snapshot of this context that we live in, but at least it adds one more perspective into their understanding of Singapore.

Could you could talk more about what A Land Imagined means to you?

We all know that Singapore is a very multifarious kind of amalgamation of things. When I think about my film, I’m talking about not just the import of labour, but also of sand. Our land, just like our labour, comes from all over the region. First and foremost, the core of the film is really this idea of Singapore being truly an intersection. Then there is this idea of belonging and citizenry, and also of borders and boundaries. I think these ideas just interconnect in the film, and that was what I was exploring.

Of course, the real human drama here is the lives of the migrant workers. The truth is that they’re everywhere in Singapore because there is construction 24/7, all year round. And it’s also being done almost 100% by a migrant workforce, but at the same time we don’t see them enough, they’re the visible invisible. They’re everywhere but at the same time we have very little direct interaction with them.

A Land Imagined tries to look at them properly, as human beings, not just as workers. We also see them play, make music, and go through their very human problems. They are never really included into the bigger conversation about what Singapore is.

Yeo Siew Hua with other panellists Eva Tang (third from left) and Jerrold Chong (first from left) at LumiNation 2019. (Photo: Arts House Limited)
Yeo Siew Hua with other panellists Eva Tang (third from left) and Jerrold Chong (first from left) at LumiNation 2019. (Photo: Arts House Limited)

This year’s National Day Parade celebrated our bicentennial and showed where we came from and what our future could be. What is the Singapore of your imagination like?

The Singapore I imagine is a more reflective Singapore. We need to be reflective of how we have come to be and what is it that we see ourselves as. It’s not just about finding a reason to celebrate a bicentennial, but why are we celebrating in the first place?

I think Singapore has to be a lot more inclusive. Because as you rightly put it, if we see it in our National Day Parade, and the kind of narrative that comes out of it, it’s about how we ourselves were migrants. We are only second- or third-generation, so we’re not really so far from migrant status ourselves. If we weren’t so inclusive in the first place, then we would not be where we are today.

I think it’s about thinking about this more expansive notion of Singapore. If we don’t start to see ourselves as a more inclusive but more compassionate society, then we’re not going to grow in the way that we always have. If we start thinking in these very hard lines of us and them, and if this continues I just don’t see the kind of Singapore that we have built ourselves to be.

How do you think filmmakers in Singapore can address that?

Film is about narrative-making, telling stories about ourselves and what we see ourselves to be. That means that we are constantly re-contextualising ourselves in any kind of culture product or art form.

In terms of the film industry, it’s definitely a very exciting place, especially since I first went to film school where my seniors already paved the way. I hope that younger filmmakers now have things to aspire to in the sense that it’s possible to be part of that conversation not just domestically, but also on international platforms.

We are seeing a lot of co-productions in the industry, we’re also seeing a lot of our films on platforms like Netflix and more international platforms. It’s a very exciting time for us. There’s also a lot of professionalisation in the industry.

This is very hopeful and very optimistic. But sometimes I also worry that things will become more formalised when the industry develops this way. I’m someone who is all about discovery and continuous experimentation. There is also this idea of national identity, but it is a kind of construct. And the worry is that when we try to formalise things like national identity within a certain industry of storytelling, it could start to make this too one-note or one-dimensional. I just don’t want filmmaking to lose touch of the possibilities.

Do you have any advice for any aspiring filmmakers?

After travelling so much with my films and to festivals internationally, ultimately the global audience wants to see and hear honest things.

They want to see sincere films, they want to see our truths being told, and I think as a young filmmaker, it’s sometimes very easy to try to want to imitate something else that is very cool, but actually that’s not what the international audience wants to see of your space.

They want to see what’s at the heart of the matter, of this space, they want to understand Singapore and the stories that come out of here.