Lonely Living in a Non-Place: An Interview with Yeo Siew Hua
An oneiric drama set in Singapore’s construction sites designated for land reclamation, A Land Imagined (2018) depicts the results of the city’s efforts in conquering the sea. In a premise fit for a crime mystery, Lok (Peter Yu), a worn out cop, is assigned to investigate the disappearance of Wang (Xiaoyi Liu), a Chinese construction worker. The investigation escalates as Wang’s Bangladeshi co-worker Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico) also vanishes, then the film switches to Wang’s point of view at the time of his disappearance. Yeo Siew Hua, who has a background in philosophy, deliberately blurs time and space to evoke Singapore’s constant sense of transition. Insomnia is a common affliction among the characters regardless of class, and provides an opportunity to enter parallel realities while gaming online. Mindy (Yue Guo), a sassy manager of a 24-hour Internet café, is introduced as a facilitator among the virtual/reality duality. The outcome is a captivating genre hybrid, mixing realist images of the construction site with neo-noir tropes and an anxiety induced by thrillers. Unlike Davy Chou, whose Diamond Island (2016) also tackled themes of inequality and longing, Yeo Siew Hua isn’t as interested in the interaction between the upper class and the underprivileged. Rather, he wants to question our ability to relate to and integrate with these people. Even the cop, whose task is to search for him, doesn’t feel invested in Wang’s disappearance, as illegal migrants are disposable, second-hand citizens.
Although he avoids thorny questions, such as ownership of the land reclaimed from the sea, and ethical issues regarding artificial intervention upon nature, Yeo confessed his struggle to connect to his surroundings. Akin to a memorable conversation between Wang and Mindy, who ponder whether they belong to Singapore or to its lender sand-providing countries, Yeo confessed the hardship in relating to places that no longer exist. “I cannot even remember where I had my first kiss. The place is totally changed now,” he admitted. During our talk at the 71st Locarno Film Festival, even before he became the first Singaporean to claim the Golden Leopard, he expressed his hopes to win so that the film would have a better chance at being released in his homeland. At the time, the film had a long road ahead before passing censorship. For him, it was important that his people reflect on the importance of connecting with their dwellings and each other. Early into 2019, A Land Imagined, a recipient of the prestigious Hubert Bals Fund, screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in its Voices section. Rotterdam is a good example of a city building with nature in mind, rather than fighting against it. A model of inclusion, its port represents the world in a nutshell. No wonder the film was well received in the Netherlands, a landmark for land reclamation.
You’ve mentioned that you spent a lot of time with workers, so I was wondering if the plot was inspired by their real-life stories?
My interaction with the workers became very important, especially when I decided to develop their plot. I needed to research their environment because, technically speaking, I come from the opposite side of that society. I went to the west of industrial Singapore, which is a place where you don’t go to if you have no business there, and I stumbled upon these people. I realized they were so welcoming, so hospitable. The taxis to go to the center of Singapore are too expensive for them, so on weekends they make their own music near the [construction company’s] dormitories. For me, it was a whole other world that opened up to me without barriers. Once this process started, I visited them every weekend and we became friends. There are a lot of immigrants in Singapore of different nationalities, and there’s a lot of talk about integration, but some fundamental perceptions are still in place. Here, there is always the problem of “Othering.” The official discourse is that we should be good hosts, but the lines are still drawn very clearly. [The politicians] are more concerned with not creating racial tensions than with establishing real friendship or camaraderie. Many of the people I’ve met became part of this amalgamation of the worker character, which is Wang, the Chinese worker, and Ajit, the Bangladeshi worker. This understanding of the otherness, not someone in particular, became more important to me.
I’ve noticed that, even among them, there is a social order; the darker-skinned workers are more marginalized. This is a crucial topic nowadays with the right-wing ascension in Europe, where we have a refugee problem. How did Singaporeans deal with this mass of people immigrating to their country?
The truth is that, from day one, Singapore was created out of migration, so this situation wasn’t new for us. In a sense, the Singaporeans are very good at keeping order, making sure that everybody is in the right place and that they don’t revolt. There is no popular revolution, there is no resistance to the government’s policies, and everybody goes along with it. The problem is that there is no real coming together of these people, in my opinion. And you’re right, even within the worker’s community, there are differences among the ones from China, Bangladesh, more recently Myanmar, and also Thailand and Cambodia. There is a hierarchy even among them, but they have no say in it out of fear of deportation, thus they are orderly. As in my film, they have no proper rights.
Yes, I was thinking the film depicts a space like a non-place, you know, because although politically it belongs to Singapore, the sand comes from everywhere. Maybe the characters are also non-existent in a way, because legally they don’t exist. They don’t have papers, and they can disappear and be disposed of at any time. What do you think about shaping a new space? Does it also shape a new landscape of power, as if the space is the one that develops the social relationships?
Given that every place has its history of how it formed, social relations develop differently. We separated from Malaysia 50 years ago in what could be called a peaceful break up. We then grew into a wealthier nation in the region and managed to preserve our sovereignty through these relations of affluence. This newfound power based on trade and finances set the circumstances for migrant laborers, an endangered group that can be exploited since the Singapore workforce is expensive. The social relations and how they can be bettered are beyond my explanations.
What drove you to the themes of alienation and identity?
They have been my interests since my early work. Living in Singapore is like being a tourist in my own country. It’s alienating for someone like me, who is a creative person, because the whole system is driven towards its banking and financial sectors. The country was created for tourism. At the same time, this leads to the theme of identity. Who am I and what does it mean to be Singaporean? While so many different nationalities coexist, does it mean that if someone is Bangladeshi, they are not Singaporean enough? I mean, I’m Chinese, but I am indigenous, my great-grandfather came from China only a few decades ago. I think this situation bleeds into the film. I’m trying to create more fluid identities for the characters through dreaming, which is used like a trope to get out of my own consciousness so that I can transplant myself into another situation and navigate identity and spaces in not such a fixed structure.
So the sea becomes this hypothetical space, a virtual new island. At the same time, there’s this blurring of perspectives, oscillating between Lok’s investigation and Wang’s own dream about it. How important was it for you to develop your film around these changing perceptions?
I’m inspired by the work of this Taoist philosopher from the classical period, Zhuangzi. His most famous story, “Dream of the Butterfly,” is often quoted in the West. This philosopher narrates how he woke up after he dreamt he was a butterfly, but he couldn’t tell whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or whether he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man. I think this type of dreaming is so real that it enables you to move through spaces. When I mention this idea, I’m not debating whether reality is real or not, but whether we are able to move our consciousness towards the Other, to get out of ourselves to become something else. I was trying to lose the standpoint of an upper-middle-class person of a Chinese majority so that I can thoroughly understand these people. The first step is to see them as humans, not as functional beings that we can use and toss away. We really need to be able to think outside of ourselves.
Were there any references that inspired you?
I never consciously chose references, but at the same time, I think you can find some of them in the film. It’s strange, but one would be the shooter game that they play. Playing these types of video games has always been very dreamlike. I was a hardcore gamer; I used to play when I was younger, and that’s why the game that I used is actually one from a long time ago. There are other elements too, like paintings. They are always the starting point for my films. I worked with my DP and discussed this movie as a kind of landscape film. Those sand and dunes are what hits you, all that sand is a character. The scene in which the policeman stares at the landscape painting came in this context.
When you went to these land reclamation zones, did you notice the workers attending cyber cafés? Is it common?
In the last five years, the smaller chains disappeared. It’s not like in China; I know that situation quite well. It’s becoming an addiction. People live their lives in the shop. For me, it’s not important to explore this stuff but to use the elements of the space where the Chinese migrants are residing. They live in a poor district far away from the city’s recreational space and go to gaming shops near their dormitories to unwind. I tried to create this character who is sleepless, and the most natural thing to do at night for him, as a foreigner, is to look for some kind of human connection. But, of course, an online connection is very strange. It’s never a real one, so this attempt alienates him.
Can you talk about your way of creating a mood?
Maybe this goes back to references. Be it animism, like in Thai cinema, or spirituality, like in the Philippines, although I am Chinese and I speak English, I associate my movies and myself with a Southeast Asian view of cinema. I’ve always found that there is a layer beyond what meets the eye. But at the same time, Singapore is a little bit of a special case, because it is not as spiritual as a lot of our neighboring countries. Still, I feel there is something beyond this surface of gray buildings, and I found it in a strange kind of sleeplessness. Visually, it is challenging. I need to give credit to my collaborators from Japan, the cinematographer Hideho Urata, and the gaffer, Yoshio Tsunetani. They brought elements to the film, like the colors and lights, very neon-like, but neon in a different way, not like the 1990s. We somehow went back to the ‘80s, stole some of that, and brought it to the present.
From a multicultural perspective, the sound design also blended different kinds of music, such as the Bangladeshi singers in the streets and the mysterious instrumental parts of the score. It sounds like jazz, but with a twist.
Music is important in the film, and not in terms of its form. Content-wise, it’s a vehicle. I believe one way to transcend a certain kind of cultural divide is movement, the coming together with song and dance. This element is like a catalyst for the concept of out-of-body experiences. Visually, it is a film noir. For the theme though, we thought we should play around a bit. We used other strange instruments non-specific to noir. On the other hand, we wanted to depend on conventions that people knew — and then subvert them. It was important that the audience continued to question what it was they were watching.
I thought Mindy was depicted like a femme fatale, although she’s more like an unusual feminine presence in this male-dominated environment. How did you conceive her story in this space?
It was obvious to me that when I started writing her, and when I started to think about the film as a film noir, she became the femme fatale, since she was the only female character. But at the same time, I made her not femme; she’s androgynous. If you can imagine her life, she might have other girlfriends. The femme fatale usually creates a problem for the male character, but that was not my intention. In the end, she became the connection between the two men. She is like the boatman, like a gatekeeper between the two worlds. You needed to go through her to arrive at where you wanted to go. In a subtle way, her character ties all the stories together, so I needed to adapt the image of a strong woman to this artificial environment.
Wang Bing also records the stories of workers. In Bitter Money (2016), he shows people coming from impoverished parts of China to earn some money in sweatshops. They can’t fall asleep too.
When I started to ask around, many workers confessed they couldn’t sleep. A lot of them suffer from anxieties, some unconsciously. They are alone with their hopes and fears; they are worried about their home and loved ones, their mothers and wives. That was how the idea that we are all connected by our strange sleeplessness came to be.
Because there’s this artificial environment, do you feel it’s harder for people to create bonds?
The artificiality of the space, or the feeling that a country could be totally engineered, is also why the film is called “A Land Imagined.” If the land is imaginary, because we buy sand and we undo natural borders, then even the people are imaginary. We imagined them; we needed 30% of these kind of people and 40% of that kind of people. It’s totally constructed in that sense. Yes, I think it’s not impossible to create real bonds, but it puts us in an unnatural situation, and maybe the relations themselves come out strange. Maybe it is a bit more difficult because we are cut out from nature, and Singapore doesn’t have that anymore. The situation is alienating, and if you are alienating to yourself, you are alienating to others.
Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined premiered at the 71st Locarno Film Festival.