Siew Hua Yeo: «With ‘A Land Imagined’ I simply wanted to raise questions»

Siew Hua Yeo

10/26/2018.- In its 50-year history as an independent nation, Singapore has reclaimed around 25% of its total ground area from the sea. This engineering mega works is mostly made possible by cheap immigrant labour, as was claimed by the director of A Land Imagined, Siew Hua Yeo, in the course of a press conference following the Official Section screening of his movie in the Valladolid International Film Festival.

In order to transform this “imagined land” into a real country, harsh working conditions have to be enforced that make immigrant workers particularly vulnerable. Exposing these conditions, however, was not part of the filmmaker’s original plan: “I did not set out to portray such a mean system, but rather raise a number of questions.”

Inquiring into the situation of the victims involved some amount of detective work, said Siew Hua Yeo. Thence the thriller format: «The film somehow mirrors my own search for information about the  immigrant workers.  This is an opaque world where it is impossible to find facts about these people: whether they were deported or even whether they are dead or alive…”

In a statement made before arriving in Valladolid, the filmmaker elaborated on his research process. Since not everything one needs to know in order to put together a film can be found in books and reports, he made a point of diving into the environment of those whom he wanted to give voice to. “I spent a long time with them, getting to know them not simply as workers, but as human beings with dreams, aspirations, problems and worries. Much of my creative process was based on observation —not passive observation, though, since you can’t afford to ignore  what you are witnessing, and in the end you have to react.”

Blurred boundaries

Siew Hua Yeo

The directors’ criticism is present even in what may appear to be the film’s most amiable aspects, like the  festive scenes. “The movie portrays a form of collective hallucination whereby individuals surrender their egos in order to experience the feeling of belonging to a human group,” he explained. And he added: “But this is also the outcome of the physical. In rituals involving dance, for example, the somatic boundaries become uncertain and the identity of individuals gets blurred among the merry-making. There is no longer ‘I’ or ‘you’: only bodies in motion. Dreaming is like dancing. The mind and the body are allowed to be radically released from the disciple of a productivity-driven economic system.”

The fusion of conscious and unconscious states may well be mirrored by the permeability between the several levels of reality where the  characters seem to meet despite not seeing each another. “I am often asked who dreams of whom in my film, and who is the more real of the two. I believe both belong to the same reality and even to the same spatial plane.”

Two characters on  the Möbius strip

For a filmmaker trained in Philosophy, exploring  the interplay between the different worlds that can coexist may have been a choice. Yet Siew Hua Yeo decided to focus on temporal issues as the basis for his film. “Rather than  modal worlds and alternative realities, I decided to zoom in on other variables like time, which in turns leads to the question: Which of the two characters was the first to dream? Structurally, the film turns in on itself in a superimposition of both temporal worlds that allows for the transformative encounter of two completely different characters who belong to the same space-time continuum: just as on the Möbius strip, they never meet each other.”

Posted in 63rd Seminci.