Film Fanatic: An Interview with A Land Imagined (幻土) Director Yeo Siew Hua and Composer Teo Wei Yong
When we watched (and reviewed) A Land Imagined last year, it had just made history as the first Singaporean film to win the prestigious Golden Leopard, the highest accolade at the 71st Locarno International Film Festival.
Fast forward a year later, and at Taiwan’s 56th Golden Horse Awards (the ‘Oscars of the Mandarin-speaking world’), A Land Imagined received four nominations, for Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Film Score, Best Film Editing and Best Sound Effects. And at the end of the evening, screenwriter (and director) Yeo Siew Hua and composer Teo Wei Yong each walked away with awards in their respective fields.
Certainly, the win has only helped everyone on the team, and they’re busier than ever with workshops, residencies and other upcoming projects. But that’s not to say the lifespan of A Land Imagined is over, as the team reunites for the launch of the official A Land Imagined DVD and soundtrack this weekend. In the lead-up to the release, we spoke to newly crowned Golden Horse Award winners Siew Hua and Wei Yong, talking about their artistry, concept, and the Singapore film industry.
In our review of A Land Imagined, we described the neo-noir film as “a dream in motion”, covering the parts of Singapore so often bathed in shadow and hidden away from the public eye. “I was thinking a lot about Singapore as a space, and how it was constantly growing and expanding through land reclamation,” says director Siew Hua. “We import sand from other countries, and use foreign labour to build the new lands, and it’s so fascinating that these parts are a product of non-Singaporean things and people. I then began to look at the actual subjects, the migrant workers on Tuas, and you realise that some of them have been here over 20 years, yet are still invisible to us. We choose not to see them, we don’t know them in person, and that’s a big impetus of the film, this lack of integration.”
“Not to mention, I had been wanting to make a film about sleeplessness for a while, and it was something a lot of people struggled with, and it’s so hard to pinpoint the exact reason why. That gives it a kind of mystery, and for myself, when I experienced insomnia, it felt a lot like I was constantly sleepwalking, in a state of dreaming when awake. Speaking to the migrant workers, they often told me that working in Singapore was like a dream, and I linked that to the idea of being in a bizarre collective dream.”
Having been released within a few months of each other, there were inevitable comparisons to Hollywood film Crazy Rich Asians, and how they showed two completely different sides of our island home. “Certainly, the Crazy Rich Asian side of Singapore exists, but it’s a much smaller percentage than what we love to show off in our ads and marketing,” comments Siew Hua. “Behind this affluent, postcard-like version of Singapore, there’s the machinery that runs it from behind, something we like to hide. For me, my aim was to cinematically expose this machinery, specifically, Tuas and the industrial West, a place that even most Singaporeans themselves have never been. It’s a fascinating space, and in the film, you can see elements like a crimson red, sublimely beautiful sky. That’s the result of the air being so thick in smog and pollution.”
Besides A Land Imagined, Siew Hua is also known for having directed the 2014 documentary The Obs: A Singapore Story, tracing the origins and story behind local band The Observatory. With this documentary background in mind, A Land Imagined then was also concerned with a certain level of realism amidst the dream-like plot. “Aside from my leads, everyone else was played by actual migrant workers,” says Siew Hua. “It was important to me to use actual people and actual spaces. The dorms and work sites you see onscreen are the actual ones. The migrant workers’ schedules also only allowed them to shoot on weekends, so we had to arrange our whole shooting schedule to match theirs.”
“I was really insistent on using the actual dorms, and my amazing team somehow managed to get access to those spaces. Of course, we were still restricted by what we could do, but that’s the fun in filmmaking. We take on all those restrictions, and figure out how to work around it. It’s about finding the space to play, and sometimes, you manage to capture something even more real than if you were given complete freedom.”
Speaking about his main cast, which includes newcomer Luna Kwok and theatre practitioner Liu Xiaoyi, Siew Hua comments: “Xiaoyi was someone we were very interested in casting, having seen him in most of his theatre performances. Fran Borgia, our lead producer, had worked with him on a previous project, and got him on board. We were very aware that as a worker from mainland China, we wanted someone who was faithful to that origin to be cast in the role, not for say a Hong Kong actor to put on an accent. It was interesting because we needed to bring that sophisticated, thespian-type performance down to the gritty, working class nature of his character. Yet Wang (Xiaoyi’s character) remains very unusual, because he’s this deep thinker, and unusually contemplative, and it all came together to make him a kind of working class hero.”
Turning our attention to Wei Yong, we ask about his composition process, and how it is he came up with the score, one that was unusual for a neo-noir film in its mix of sounds nothing like the jazzy film noir tunes of old. “It was quite shiok to finally get a chance to do a project like this, cause most of the time I’ve been working on corporate videos and animation,” says Wei Yong. “I was thinking about how eh, Hollywood has a lot of noir, but I didn’t want to do a typical LA/New York style score. So I veered off into a different thought process, and centred on how Singapore has a lot of clubs and cybercafes active deep into the night. So I took that as my inspiration, subverting the film noir scenes of this one lonely guy in a dark room smoking a cigar with a whiskey in hand. Instead of jazz, we used the club sound as a source for the noir, and it was an interesting twist to it.”
“It was very obvious right from the start that it was a neo-noir film, but we didn’t want to make it an obvious, typical noir,” adds Siew Hua. “Much of the noir elements instead come from the music, and we tapped a lot into the idea of loneliness at night. The music starts almost jazzy, and then the strange, synthesised electronic sounds come in, and the music evolves just as the film evolves. I like to describe A Land Imagined as a chimaera, and for me, the music didn’t have to parallel or match the sound. A lot of the time, we went on tangents that would surprise the audience, layering the film with music that wasn’t just there, but almost had a life of its own, telling its own story besides the image we see, and sometimes, even purposely being dissonant with the image.”
On his writing process, Wei Yong reveals that it wasn’t a case where he comes up with a whole bunch of tracks beforehand, but instead, writing for each individual scene, as necessary. “The great thing about doing it this way is that you get to pinpoint exactly what is required for each scene, and really zoom in on that,” says Wei Yong. “Everything was shot when I came on board already, and there was enough inspiration on screen to help me figure out what I wanted to write.”
Speaking on the experience of travelling from festival to festival, Siew Hua reveals that it largely depends on each organiser and how much they were willing to screen their film. “An independent film like ours is so dependent on getting invited by various festivals, and to keep building on each appearance with awards and accolades,” he says. “Without a win, a film ends up finding it much more difficult to travel as they’re less likely to get funded, and we were very lucky to have won at Locarno.”
Even for travelling to say, the Golden Horse Awards, things could get stressful. “There’s a lot of money involved with awards ceremonies like this, and every minute counts,” says Siew Hua. “From the moment we touched down, there’s a lot of work we had to do, especially around publicity efforts and appearances. But I give a lot of credit to the organisers. They’ve been doing it for so many years, and hospitality is very strong. The Taiwanese are very meticulous about these things, and sure, you have to work for it, but if you follow their schedule, generally it works, and they do try to make it as comfortable a process as possible.”
“A lot of the time though, we’re working on a tight budget,” says Wei Yong. “They were nice enough to provide one hotel room with two separate beds, and my mum ended up wanting to come along. But if my dad also wanted to join, we’d have had to pay for another room. Everything is about trying to spend the least amount of money possible. But man, the goody bags they give are great.”
“Speaking of competitions, it’s honestly very difficult having our own internal competitions, when we just don’t have the output compared to say the Middle East, India or China,” says Siew Hua. “How do we then have a platform to show ourselves and compete? Film for us, ends up being like the Olympics, where you gain recognition for making it to something on a much wider scale. The awards and reviews help so much, because there is so much content out there, and it can be hard to just pick something good to watch. People want that assurance.”
“Especially when it comes to international competitions, having an award means people will open their eyes to it, now that you’ve been judged by an international jury and critic. It’s a filter process, because even when we’re browsing for things to watch, we also want to know what is ‘the best’. I can’t blame people for saying it has to have proven itself before it gets the backing to get even more awareness. That’s the way the film ecosystem works, and even I’m guilty of looking towards Oscar nominees and winners to get an idea of what’s ‘good’, otherwise, I might not prioritise it on my to-watch list.”
As for why the team is choosing to release a DVD, despite the falling popularity of the medium in response to streaming services, not to mention that A Land Imagined is already available on Netflix, Siew Hua has a sentimental but logical answer. “The DVD market is a lot smaller than what it used to be, but there’s still this very strong support for limited, collector’s editions,” says Siew Hua. “Think of it as a special box set, where images from the film are included in a booklet that haven’t yet been published online. There’s something about having a physical copy that’s very important for a lot of people, including myself.”
“Plus, we’ll be including a whole extra interview on my thoughts on the film, and there’s a lot of details, the award-winning soundtrack of course, and it’s all about making the experience special. The medium isn’t for everyone, but it’s one that will never truly die. Think of it like vintage, vinyl records. There’s also a lot of people who don’t have access to Netflix, and in some other regions, it may not even be available on their Netflix, so we really just want to give everyone that opportunity to own a copy of the film.”
“For myself, I’ve always wanted to make films about Singapore, for the Singapore audience, and films that can still connect to a conversation beyond Singapore,” Siew Hua concludes. “When I travel with this film around the world, I get reactions like ‘oh that’s happening in our country too.’ So I’m really glad that it’s managed to translate well overseas, connecting to a larger discussion and people.
The A Land Imagined DVD can be purchased at:
Objectifs – Centre for Photography and Film, 155 Middle Road, or ordered from their webstore
Neo Kinokuniya Singapore Main Store (Books Kinokuniya), #04-20 Takashimaya Shopping Centre