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RELEASE DATE: 4/12/2019
DIRECTOR: Yeo Siew Hua
In this moody Singaporean thriller, a detective is on the hunt for a missing man, but the answers he finds send him into an existential tailspin.
Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined is about lost people trying to find other lost people. It’s also about people making sense of a world that is inscrutable. There is a literal and figurative searching—for people and answers that may never materialize. But if those people and answers are found, they will not provide closure. Armed with a moody synth score and trio of lost characters, A Land Imagined is a beguiling, frustrating film. After a string of successful international film festival screenings, it landed on Netflix on Friday.
The plot of the film revolves around the disappearance of Wang (Liu Xiaoyi), a Chinese migrant working in Singapore. After injuring his arm in a land reclamation project, Wang is reassigned to driving duty. His first task is to pick up migrants from Bangladesh. Restless nights follow and Wang finds himself as a repeat customer at a 24-hour cybercafé. The night manager, Mindy (Luna Kwok), takes an inexplicable interest in Wang, and the two venture out to explore the night frequently. On the other end of the mystery is detective Lok (Peter Yu). He retraces Wang’s movements but struggles to decipher Wang’s motivations.
There is a lot of struggling in A Land Imagined, most of it philosophical. Early on, Lok talks to his partner about how the land looked 30 years earlier but has changed so much. Lok isn’t nostalgic for the past, just commenting on the changes with an implicating eye to the future. His partner’s response? A dismissive “how do you remember how it was 30 years ago?”
In another scene, Mindy and Wang sit on a beach, looking at the city’s skyline. They talk about where they want to go when Wang says that they’ve been everywhere and nowhere, just by being where they are. He notes that because of land reclamation, the rocks, dirt, tools, and people who inhabit Singapore come from all over the world. Individuality is lost to progress. Or rather, we’re in such a hurry to force change and progress on the world that we don’t see how the world is forcing change on us.
A Land Imagined can be quite despairing at times. The film constantly reminds us that the world is moving along, with or without us. Early in his investigation, Lok notes that Wang has been missing for a week without anyone noticing. Mindy frequently leaves her post at the cybercafé without any repercussions. Yeo presents a barrage of images suggesting man’s futility. We see Lok strip naked and on his treadmill, running until he’s out of breath without going anywhere. Mindy and Wang swim out against the current and are returned to shore after nearly drowning. It reminds me of an image from The Wire, McNulty standing on tracks with a train bearing down on him.
A Land Imagined cuts back and forth between Wang and Lok’s perspectives. As the narrative unfolds, the shifts start to blend until they become one giant inextricable morass. The more confusing the story becomes, the more I liked A Land Imagined. Characters talk about the past, while we see the skeletons of buildings under construction, hinting at what’s to come. But the future isn’t as clearly defined for us as it is for those buildings. The present also lacks definition. One of the film’s most memorable images is a shot of Mindy standing behind a glass panel. Is she observing or is she the observer? Which one are we? Does it matter and is it better to be one or the other?
I get the sense that Yeo is grasping for something larger, but I can’t put my finger on it. Lok and Wang, both suffering from insomnia, each end up with casts on their right arms. It isn’t clear to me if Yeo is implying that they’re the same, or if he’s literalizing the notion that we’re all the same in the grand sweep of time. All I know is that the mystery here isn’t that of a missing person. The real question of A Land Imagined is this: are you in control of your world, or is the world in control of us?
I watched A Land Imagined twice, and I feel confident recommending the film. I’m not sure if Yeo’s philosophical musings are insightful or contradictory. But his script is full of prodding questions, and the images he creates are inquisitive and alluring. A Land Imagined is a place I’m eager to think about and visit again. All of the elements don’t quite add up, but it still works. The film is compelling, and if you’re in the mood to engage with it, I think you’ll find it rewarding.
Need more ideas? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, true crime, food shows, gangster movies, Westerns, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, and standup specials when you really need to laugh. Or check out Flixable, a search engine for Netflix.
Eddie Strait is a member of the Austin Film Critic Association. His reviews focus primarily on streaming entertainment, with an emphasis on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other on-demand services.