Native Sand: Yeo Siew Hua Interviewed by Sihan Tan

The Singaporean filmmaker on migrant labor; visitations; and his recent work, A Land Imagined.

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Peter Yu in Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.

Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined finds Lok, an insomniac detective, searching for missing migrant workers at one of Singapore’s land reclamation projects. Along the way, the endless sand, disembodied dreams, and femme fatales manning ocean-themed cybercafés provide more cosmic motivations than clues. 

The first Singaporean feature to win the Golden Leopard, A Land Imagined blunts film noir tropes with phosphorescent layers of Zen-essayistic meanderings, producing a benevolent but unsweetened antidote for Singapore’s contemporary masquerade, as well as for more metaphysical estrangements. I spoke to Siew Hua, or Chris as everyone knows him, at his penultimate stop, the 48th edition of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films festival, to round off a most eventful year.

—Sihan Tan

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Still from Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined, 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.

Sihan TanA Land Imagined was eight years in the making, with the final script coming about only after two years of socializing and interviews with members of Singapore’s large migrant work force.

Yeo Siew HuaDepending on how you want to trace it, the original idea for the film started almost eight years ago. The original focus was on the sleepless inhabitants of a city that was causing mysterious anxieties. In a way, it still is, except I delved deeper into the city and the metamorphosis called land reclamation, which led me to the people working on it. I began to realize how their stories were inextricably linked to the story of this ever-expanding landscape. I also would be horrified if I ended up making a film exactly like something I came up with eight years ago.

It took time for the workers to trust my intention to give voice to them, this sizable population of people who aren’t always afforded time and space in society. It’s precisely this lack of visibility that compelled us to cast as many migrant workers as possible, to show actual scenes of how they lived and work, which also gave rise to the documentary approach to the film. The professionalism and excitement they brought to the shoot really touched me.

STI joined you once, if you recall, for a late-night jam session at their dormitories; I remember the energy and their hospitality. 

YSHThat’s right, you were there on one of my trips to their dormitories in the industrial west, which is also built on reclaimed land. Because they’ve been so removed from the Singapore as we, Chinese Singaporeans, know it, it takes time to really meet each other. If you remember the Baul music they were playing, the whole point was to send dancers into a trance and take one’s mind away from the harsh conditions of the worksite. You’d be surprised to discover that trust built on bodies is infinitely stronger than words. Later, I came to realize that buried in this merrymaking were heart-breaking confessions with lyrics like: “I am cursed and banished. Don’t come near me, my friend.”

STDid you ever compare dreams with your actors?

YSHWe live in a country where things change so fast that most of the spaces I grew up with are no longer around. Sometimes you feel adrift, as in a dream. When I asked the foreign workers of their experience of Singapore, they also said that it is akin to a dream, though I suspect we are using the word in a wholly different way. I was left with the sense of a collective hallucination that we are all involved in somehow. One account that shook me involved a worker’s friend, who died in a workplace accident, coming to him in a dream. I had jumped to the conclusion that the dream was of his own anxiety towards his safety, but he seemed calm. I decided afterward to withhold my projections and take the dream account for what it is, a visitation, a meeting within a collective dreaming.

STThis meeting or visitation occurs in your film.

YSHYes, the idea was that two individuals from completely different backgrounds and consciousnesses would end up meeting through a dream. It was never a question of whether something was less real because it happened in a dream. I believe there is as much truth in dreaming as there is in wakefulness. I also think visitations can transform one’s consciousness, allowing him or her to radically imagine an Other outside and beyond the limitations of the self.

These visitations takes place not just in the dreaming but also in the dancing, as I have tried to evoke in the film. The migrant workers and I can never fully understand each other, but the boundaries between us are made porous through dreaming and dancing. Our fixed identities start to fall apart. 

STI find it fascinating having both dancing and dreaming as avenues for escape or pathways to forget oneself in spite of the world. Early in A Land Imagined, Lok gets naked and runs on a treadmill. When Wang, the worker Lok’s searching for, and his love interest, Mindy, leave the cybercafé for a night swim, they are swimming towards a floating city of cargo ships on the sea. There is movement in these scenes, bodies are liberated as you say, yet the movement remains contained or trapped by a rather profound stuckness.

YSHAs third- or fourth-generation Singaporeans, we constantly think of this land as one of possibilities, yet most of us feel trapped or stuck in stasis here. One often feels the need to look out into the distance, stare at the idyllic pastoral rendering on a dining room wall, or contemplate the kitschy tropical fauna prints on window blinds. The irony of course is that we are an island, but standing at the edge of it you won’t get to see clear open waters stretching out, only the lights of cargo ships dotting the horizon.

STLok is an insomniac loner who lives on the fringe, yet his openness to dreams, and to the experience of migrant workers, renders him almost childlike. He kicks a bottle down a sand dune and flops after it, he hesitates before firing a gun, he dances with wild abandon, he has no love interest, no past, he can’t dream. Who or what exactly is Lok?

YSHAt face value, Lok appears to be borrowed straight out of a pulp fiction noir. I wanted the audience to feel easily familiar with such a stock character, only to slowly subvert these expectations as the film unravels. He also performs the role of the audience’s surrogate on entering the unfamiliar world of these migrant workers, mirroring my own investigative process researching the film. Contrary to creating complex characters, I wanted to avoid layering his psychology with overly dramatic states, leaving space for the audience to insert themselves. I kept his background slightly ambiguous with only hints of a past; a past that is itself a conceptual conundrum, that he was able to dream when he was younger and now he can’t even fall asleep. He yearns to sleep and dream again, for the inability to dream of other possibilities than this reality is itself a certain death.

STThe idea of land reclamation has always struck me as magical realist and fantastical. We are an island the size of New York City, having increased our land mass by 22 percent since our independence fifty years ago. We buy sand from our neighbors, effectively reducing their shorelines to fatten ours. It’s essentially geographical cannibalism!

YSHI like the way you frame this as geographical cannibalism, as though in the act of claiming our waters by piling on sand from our neighbors, we repossess our own territory and make it more real­—like the act of eating and making it a part of ourselves—exchanging fluidity for concretization. But whose sand? Whose land? I guess we didn’t really bother asking the fish.

STYou tackle this desire for concretization in the visual climax of A Land Imagined. We are invited to swim past walls and sand six feet under, in a glitching simulation of the first-person shooter videogame Counter-Strike.

YSHI find it astounding that people were still playing Counter-Strike at all the cybercafés I visited. And the map we used for the simulation, de_dust, is still incredibly popular, and also reflects all the golden sand in A Land Imagined. Floating around in the third person after one dies in a multiplayer game feels very much like a disembodied afterlife where one is forgotten and ignored, quite like the feeling of death in Wang’s prophetic dream account. As the world started to break up before my eyes, allowing me glimpses of the interstices in this virtual reality, it struck me that this is how it looks when an imagined land of constructed dreams holds up, until it doesn’t. 

Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined is available to stream on Netflix.

Sihan Tan is a Singaporean writer based in Brooklyn.

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