The three definitions of the word “ghost” from the Oxford dictionary are as follows: the first, “an apparition of a dead person which is believed to appear or become manifest to the living”; the second, “a slight trace or vestige of something”; and the third, “a faint secondary image caused by a fault in an optical system, duplicate signal transmission, etc.”
In all three, presence is a suggestion of memory, amenable to corrections by means of a quick scrub of one’s spectacles. To become a ghost is to be remembered, to be shunned and feared, and to “haunt” the peripherals of those still living—the etymology of which stems from words meaning homes or dwellings—lurking like a partial recollection in the corner of wandering eyes.
Ostensibly, a ghost is at the heart of A Land Imagined, the central conflict of which begins with a haunting: the sudden disappearance of Chinese migrant worker Wang (Emergency Stairs’ own artistic director, Liu Xiaoyi) from a land reclamation site draws the attention of investigator Lok (Peter Yu) who finds himself lost in a series of dreams and trances as he tries to retrace the steps that Wang took before he vanished. The spectre of Wang looms big in the interstices as Lok struggles between his own conjectures and the fragmented evidences Wang left behind; a bottle of tranquilliser under a pillow; a friend who could not be found; a routine at a neighbouring cyber cafe manned by a surly attendant.
The insomniac Wang, whose sullen visage betrays a murmuring anxiety, recently broke his arm in an industrial accident and has been relegated to driver duty with a pay cut while he recuperates, ferrying his Bangladeshi colleagues to and from their dormitories day in day out. A tentative friendship is formed with the congenial Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico), who helps him with whatever miscellaneous tasks at hand and brings him out to dance whenever he looks too down, and with Mindy (Luna Kwok), the choleric shop assistant of a nearby cyber cafe. There is drama in the background, chatters of protests and a coalescing solidarity over the unfair treatment of the workers by the employer, all of which matters less to Wang than the narcotic throes of a first-person-shooter video game set in an arid desert.
Fuelled by a restless energy, Wang spends his days with Ajit and his nights with Mindy, with whom he goes on joyrides to newly reclaimed beaches in the company truck, looking ever more gaunt as he seemingly does not sleep at all. This worsens when Ajit vanishes one day after vowing to help retrieve Wang’s passport, which the foreman keeps locked away, purportedly for the benefit of the workers. What unfolds is a mounting paranoia that spills over into reality as Wang notes the discrepancies of Ajit’s absence – the foreman’s claim that Ajit has been repatriated even though his passport remains in the possession of the employer; the hostility of Ajit’s bunkmates as Wang searches for him. Wang comes to the unfortunate realisation of just how little he and his colleagues matter, at which point he himself disappears. Cue the entry of Lok into the story in a circular narrative flourish.
Whose ghost is it that prowls the edge of the screen? It is hard to tell from the get-go, though the obvious silhouette of Wang suggests a key candidate. As the film progresses, one rules him out almost immediately—the ghost here is much more abstract, the haunting much more insidious. Characterised by the jittery disquiet of the neo-noir genre, the ghostly presence in A Land Imagined manifests in the tense atmosphere and the subdued neglect of the well-being of the workers whom we witness in their warm, lively humanity. The ghost is a mood, a sentiment, a nihilist disregard for, not the value of life, but its potential: the foreman with his nonchalant proclamations (“They come to work if they want to get paid.”/“Should have sent him back to China.”), and the ceaseless machinery of development that comes at the expense of those who produce it (one of the first responses to a work site injury is “Go back to work.”).
Two concerns figure largely in A Land Imagined—the dispossession of migrant workers and Singapore’s pre-occupation with reclaiming land—both of which plays into the central theme of Singapore’s relationship with progress: a doubled population of which around half are not citizens, alongside a land area that has grown by almost a quarter since independence in 1965.
Based on statistics from the Ministry of Manpower, work permit holders numbered around a million in June 2018, with around half comprising foreign domestic workers and construction workers. Ubiquitous yet invisible, they are, in a manner of speaking, nation builders whose labor inform Singapore’s infrastructure and social fabric, but who exist on the fringe both physically—faraway dormitory complexes and side rooms—and socially. What often goes unnoticed is the irony of Singapore claiming foreign soils as its own but not the foreign workers who bleed and toil.
This observation is echoed in the film, when Wang and Mindy question the sovereignty of the land while they frolic on the man-made beach made from the sand Wang helped transport from another country: Are they still in Singapore when the very land they stand on belonged to another nation? At what point does foreign soil cease to be foreign but local? The malleability of a land’s identity is juxtaposed explicitly with the inflexibility of a migrant worker’s identity, whose alienation goes unsaid but unfolds steadily.
It is interesting to note that while A Land Imagined is Singapore’s first Golden Leopard winner at the Locarno Festival, and the first Singaporean film to win Best Film at the recently concluded Singapore International Film Festival—both rather significant milestones—media framing of the story has a tendency to focus on the contrasts it posed in relation to Crazy Rich Asians, which was released around the same time. Departing from the glittery super-rich for whom the world is their playground and Singapore just a home base into the gritty reality of a labourer’s hard knock life, the discourse swivels between two extremes, those who have everything and those who have nothing.
While it is understandable why this angle seems appropriate, this may ultimately hamper the message that is being communicated—that there is genuine work to be done to help a disenfranchised community which has contributed much without being recognised. By relegating the migrant worker to an archetype alongside a clichéd romantic comedy, what is irrevocably lost is the opportunity to see them as they are: ghosts in a public imagination who need to be brought into the light, instead of the struggling counterpoint to an inaccessible stratum of barely seen rich people.
By choosing to operate in the gap between dreams and reality, director Yeo Siew Hua has succeeded in surfacing an inconvenient truth with a grace unmatched by most. The land might be imaginary, but the people and their struggles are so, so real. Away on a beach somewhere, the ghosts we forget work beneath a tropical sun, their presence sloughing off with each crash of the waves against the shore.
A Land Imagined opens in Singapore on 21 February 2019 at Cathay Cineplexes, Golden Village and The Projector. Its opening in Singapore comes after an international tour of film festivals, picking up 15 awards internationally and locally, including the Best Film grand prize at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival.