A Land Imagined (幻土, Yeo Siew Hua, 2018)

A Land Imagined posterAs the world gets bigger and smaller at the same time, it’s as well to be asking on whose labour these new lands are being forged. Yeo Siew Hua’s Locarno Golden Leopard winner A Land Imagined (幻土, Huàn Tǔ) attempts to do just that in digging deep into the reclaimed land that has made the island of Singapore, an economic powerhouse with a poor record in human rights, 22% bigger than it was in 1965. A migrant worker goes missing and no one really cares except for an insomniac policeman who dreams himself into a kind of alternate reality which is both existential nightmare and melancholy meditation on the rampant amorality of modern day capitalism.

Lok (Peter Yu), a hangdog middle-aged detective, is charged with looking for Wang Bi Cheng (Liu Xiaoyi), a missing migrant worker from China. Just who it was that noticed Wang’s absence is only latterly explained and in suitably ambiguous fashion, but the fact remains that there is an empty space where a man named Wang used to be and Lok is the man charged with resolving that space no matter who might or might not be interested. We discover that Wang was injured on the job, almost sacked and then reprieved to drive the workers’ bus where he befriended a worker from Bangladesh, Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico), who later disappeared sending Wang on his own mirrored missing persons case in which he begins to suspect something very bad may have happened to his friend.

Despite his presumably long years on the force and world weary bearing, Lok is refreshingly uncynical for a police detective but apparently extremely naive about the city in which he lives. Stepping into the world of Wang Bi Cheng, he is shocked to discover that people live “like this” – several men crammed into in tiny bed bug infested rooms so brightly lit from outside that it’s difficult to believe that anyone gets any sleep at all. Wang, in any case, like Lok did not sleep and gradually migrated over to the 24hr internet cafe across the way where he developed a fondness for the spiky proprietress, Mindy (Luna Kwok), while repeatedly dying in videogames and being trolled by a mysterious messenger who may or may not have information about his missing friend.

Like Lok, Wang Bi Cheng cannot sleep but lives in a waking dream – one in which he envisages his own absence and the two police detectives who will search for him, not because they care but because it’s their job and they’re good at it. Men like Wang are the invisible, ghostly presence that makes this kind of relentless progress possible yet they are also disposable, fodder for an unscrupulous and uncaring machine. Asked if it’s possible that Wang and his friend Ajit simply left, the foreman’s son Jason (Jack Tan ) answers that it’s not because the company keeps the men’s passports, adding a sheepish “for their own protection, in case they lose them” on realising the various ways he has just incriminated himself.

Yeo opens with a brief and largely unrelated sequence of a young Chinese migrant worker climbing a tower in his bright orange overalls. Later Lok reads a newspaper report about this same man who tried to launch a protest in having been denied his pay and forced to endure dangerous and unethical working conditions. Meanwhile, Mindy the internet cafe girl, is forced to resort to taking money for sex acts in order to make ends meet. Like Wang, she dreams of escape, of the right to simply go somewhere else without the hassle of visas and passports. Wang jokes that the sand that built the reclaimed beach they are sitting on came from Malaysia, and that in a sense they have already crossed borders, offering to take Mindy away from all this (for a moment at least) in his (borrowed) truck but knowing that their escape is only a mental exercise in transcending the futility of their precarious existences.

Indeed, Yeo seems to be saying that Singapore itself is a “land imagined” – constantly creating and recreating itself with repeated images of modernity. One could even read its artificial territorial expansion as reshaping of its mental landscape while all this progress is dependent on the exploitation of wayfarers like Wang and Ajit wooed by the promises of wages higher than in their home countries but left with little protection and entirely at the mercy of their unscrupulous employers. Yet a strange kind of affinity arises between the lost souls of Lok and Wang, united in a common dreamscape born of sleeplessness and lit by the anxious neon of rain-drenched noir as they pursue their parallel quests, looking for each other and themselves but finding only elusive shadows of half-remembered men dreaming themselves out of existential misery.


A Land Imagined screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 20, 7pm at AMC River East 21 where director Yeo Siew Hua will be present for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Out of Paradise (Batbayar Chogsom, 2018)

Out of Paradise posterThe world moves very differently from one place to another. While cities across the world may be basically the same everywhere, a more ancient way of life may still be very much in existence the further you travel from them. For a young couple at the centre of Mongolian drama Out of Paradise, their otherwise happy nomadic existence is overshadowed by the difficultly they face in accessing modern medical care. Finding they have little choice other than to travel to the city, they discover that modernity brings with it costs as well as gains.

Dorj (Bayarsaikhan Bayartsengel) and Suren (Enerel Tumen) have been married for some time and live nomadically farming sheep. Though they are blissfully happy in each other’s company, they share a private sadness in that they have already lost two pregnancies to miscarriage and have been unable to start a family. Suren is currently heavily pregnant and the couple are understandably anxious, especially as a local doctor expresses concern over Suren’s continuing high blood pressure. They decide that this time they have no other option than to travel to the city and have the baby under expert medical care, but travelling costs money which is something they do not have. A bartered sheep buys them passage, but on arrival at the hospital they discover that they’re missing vital paperwork and will need to pay for treatment upfront.

Well suited and generally happy, the strain of coping with their shared anxiety over the baby has inevitably paced a strain on the couple’s relationship. Irritated by Dorj’s attitude, the man who’s agreed to drive them to the city takes Suren aside to ask if he’s always like this to which Suren sadly replies that he wasn’t until after they lost the baby. Angry and afraid, resentful of feeling so helpless, Dorj lashes out without thinking, eventually fighting with their driver and smashing his phone when Suren expresses concern that he is being overfamiliar and may have been spying on her in private moments – all of which maybe understandable but not particularly prudent seeing as they are otherwise marooned in the middle of the desert if he should decide to leave them or the car run into trouble.

Nevertheless, the trouble with the driver is only the first of many incidents which will occur on their journey to the city which prove that modern is living is not like that on the Steppe. Pulled off the road along the way, the couple find themselves welcomed into a wedding party but having to give up their sheep as a wedding gift (as is the custom), yet they also receive hospitality from the other nomads who share their celebratory food and drink without a second thought. When they arrive in the city there is not so much fellow feeling and money is the only thing that matters. The couple become separated as Suren stays in the hospital while Dorj heads out to pawn her gold earrings – a precious wedding gift, in the hope of raising enough money for the treatment.

“Some people have bad luck and others good”, a cynical taxi driver (Adiyabaatar Rina) whom we later discover to be a violent pimp tells a confused Dorj when he asks him where he might be able to report the loss of his wallet. Dorj’s city odyssey begins with losing one of the precious earrings and being rebuffed by a hard-nosed pawnbroker before decamping to a bar where he attempts to drown his sorrows but is comforted by a melancholy sex worker who takes pity on him after hearing his story. Managing to win his money through the ultramodern medium of a karaoke contest where he turns off the machine and sings a mournful folksong, Dorj then finds himself once again at the mercy of the city and discovering that is it hostile and unwelcoming.

Yet the world Dorj finds himself in is one filled with people much like himself, struggling against their powerlessness and fighting back against an unforgiving environment. He is tempted away from his goodness through desperation but manages to hold on to himself while worrying about his wife and family. Dorj’s resilience eventually reawakens something within the melancholy sex worker who finds herself misused by her oppressive pimp (himself fighting back against the futility of his existence by pointlessly threatening a landlord over a malfunctioning lift), unable to prevent him from targeting Dorj but wanting to anyway and vowing to free herself from his control.

The problems which Dorj and Suren face are universal – poverty, inequality, and the pettiness which accompanies them in an increasingly depersonalised society. Dorj may feel inferior in not quite understanding how to use a mobile phone, growing still more resentful towards his friend’s seemingly stable and middle-class city life and his own relative lack of sophistication but the pair are happy with their nomadic existence and have no particular desire to jump into the modern world. Nevertheless, there are aspects of modernity which are useful such as learning to drive which mark a concession towards the encroachment of something new. Tested to an extreme by the demands of a changing world, Dorj and Suren are able to save their love and repair their family both in spite of and thanks to urban civilisation but ultimately choose to return to the simple paradise of their traditional way of life.


Out of Paradise screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema at AMC River East 21 on March 19, 7pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Hideki Takeuchi, 2019)

Fly Me to the Saitama posterThe suburbia vs metropolis divide can be a difficult one to parse though there’s rarely a culture that hasn’t indulged in it. In England, for example, suburbia is to some a byword for quiet respectability, an aspirational sort of village green utopianism built on middle-class success as opposed to frivolous urban sophistication. Then again, city dwellers often look down on those from the surrounding towns as “provincial” or even dare we say it “common”. Saitama, a suburban area close enough to Tokyo to operate as a part of the commuter belt, has long been the butt of many a joke thanks to a quip from an ‘80s comedian which labeled it “Dasaitama” in an amusing bit of wordplay which forever linked it with the word “dasai” which means “naff”.

“Dasaitama” is a label which seems to haunt the protagonists of Hideki Takeuchi’s adaptation of the popular ’80s manga by Mineo Maya. Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Tonde Saitama) opens in the present day with an ordinary family who are accompanying social climber daughter Aimi (Haruka Shimazaki) to Tokyo for her engagement party. While dad is quietly seething over this perceived slight to his beloved homeland, someone turns on the local radio station which is currently running an item on an “urban legend” about a long ago (well, in the ‘80s) period of oppression in which residents of Saitama (and other neighbouring “uncool” towns) had to get a visa to travel to Tokyo where they were treated as second-class citizens fit only for the jobs regular Tokyoites didn’t want to do and forced to live in hovels (which the snobbish city dwellers somehow thought made them feel more at home). The legend recounts the tale of a brave revolutionary who convinced the Saitamans to rise up, shake off their internalised feelings of inferiority, and reclaim their Saitama pride!

Shifting into an imagined fantasy of 20th century Japan which is in part inspired by warring states factionalism, Fly Me to the Saitama is, in the words of Aimi, a kind of “boys love” pastiche which riffs off everything from The Rose of Versailles to Star Wars while indulging in the (happily) never really forbidden love of mayor’s son Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) who has a girl’s name and feminine appearance but is actually a guy, and the dashing would-be-revolutionary Rei (Gackt) who has just returned from studying abroad in America and inevitably brought back some original ideas about individual freedom and a classless society. Having been born and raised in Tokyo, Momomi has a fully integrated superiority complex which encourages him to look down on Saitamans as lesser humans, almost untouchables, whose very existence is somewhat embarrassing. Only after being humbled, and then kissed, by Rei are his eyes opened to the evils of inequality and the ongoing corruption within his own household.

It goes without saying that much of Fly Me to the Saitama’s humour is extremely local and likely to prove mystifying to those with only rudimentary knowledge of daily life in Japan at least as far as it extends to regional stereotypes and ambivalent feelings towards hometown pride in a nation in which many still find themselves taking care not to let their accent slip after having moved to the capital lest they out themselves as an unsophisticated bumpkin. Yet there is perhaps something universal in its fierce opposition towards ingrained snobberies and petty class hierarchies which pokes fun both at the social climbing small-towners like Aimi desperate to escape the “dasai” countryside for the bright lights of Tokyo, and her proudly “dasai” dad, while asking the hoity-toity Tokyoites to get over themselves, and making a quiet plea for a little peace, love, and understanding along the way.

Then again, the Saitamans may have had a little more than freedom on their minds. If the “Saitamafication” of the world resulted in an expansion of mid-range shopping malls and chain restaurants filled with peaceful, happy people would that really be such a bad thing? Saitama might not be as “exciting” or as “cool” as Tokyo but it’s a nice enough place to live when all’s said and done. Perhaps that’s a frightening thought, but if the Saitama revolution ushers in a brave new world of freedom and equality then who really could argue with that?


Fly Me to the Saitama is screening as the opening night movie of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 12 at AMC River East 21, 7pm where director Hideki Takeuchi will be present in person for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nazeka Saitama – a novelty record released in 1981 and somewhat appropriately recorded in a style popular 15 years earlier.

Asian Pop-Up Cinema Returns for Season Eight

High Flash still 2Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema returns for its eighth season from March 12 to April 24 with 16 films screening at AMC River East 21 and various venues around the city.

March 12, 7pm: Fly Me To The Saitama

Introduction and Q&A with director Hideki Takeuchi

Fly Me to Saitama bannerFumi Nikaido stars as the cosseted son of a corrupt Tokyo Governor alongside pop star Gackt as a “mysterious transfer student” in Hideki Takeuchi’s adaptation of the popular ’80s manga.

March 13, 7pm: Ten Years Japan

Introduction and Q&A with segment director Akiyo Fujimura

10 Years Japan still 1Five young directors provide their visions of a near future Japan in an omnibus movie inspired by the Hong Kong original and produced by Hirokazu Koreeda. Review.

March 16, 2pm: The Ito Sisters

Introduction and Q&A with director Antonia Grace Glenn and lead scholar Evelyn Nakano Glenn 

ito sistersDocumentary exploring the experiences of early Japanese migrants along with their American-born children.

March 19, 7pm: Out Of Paradise

Introduction and Q&A with director Batbayar Chogsom

Out of Paradise still 1A man and his heavily pregnant wife make a perilous journey to the Mongolian capital in order to get a caesarian section but once there discover they are unable to cover the medical fees.

March 20, 7pm: A Land Imagined

Introduction and Q&A with director Yeo Siew-hua.

land imagined still 1Singaporean police officer Lok investigates the disappearance of migrant worker Wang in Yeo Siew-hua’s Locarno prize winning crime drama.

March 21, 6.30pm: Funan

Funan still 1French/Cambodian animated co-production set during the Khmer Rouge revolution of 1975 in which a young mother searches for her four-year-old son who was taken away by the regime.

March 26, 7pm: Show Me Your Love

Introduction and Q&A with actress Nina Paw Hee-ching

Show me Your Love still 1A young man making a rare visit home to Malaysia on the death of an aunt is forced to reconnect with his estranged mother whom he left behind when he went to university in Hong Kong. Actress Nina Paw Hee-Ching will be present at the screening for an introduction and Q&A as well as to collect the Career Achievement Award.

March 27, 7pm: Sen Sen

Introduction and Q&A with director An Bon & actress Nina Paw Hee-ching

Sen Sen still 1A young man whose brother has recently passed away makes a surprising discovery on the cell phone he left behind – the live streams of an elderly cab driver known as Granny.

March 28, 7pm: High Flash

Introduction and Q&A with director Chuang Ching-shen & Actor Chen Chia-kuei

High Flash still 1A medical examiner investigating the death of a fisherman who self immolated to protest corporate giant TL Petrochemical uncovers a major conspiracy in Chuang Ching-shen’s crime thriller.

April 6, 2pm: Up the Mountain

up the mountain still 1Documentary by Zhang Yang focussing on the studio of artist Shen Jian-hua in a remote village in Yunnan Province.

April 7, 2pm: Four Springs

Introduction and Q&A with director Lu Qingyi moderated by Shelly Kraicer

four springgs still 1Director Lu Qingyi follows the everyday lives of his parents over four years in the remote town of Dushan in southwest China.

April 12, 6.30pm: Circle of Steel

Introduction and Q&A with director/producer Gillian McKercher and main cast Chantelle Han.

Circle of SteelCanadian chemical engineer Wendy Fong ponders her future in the face of industry layoffs in this special presentation in collaboration with the Consulate General of Canada in Chicago.

April 16, 7pm: The Pension

Introduction and Q&A with segment director Junghuh Deok-jae 

The Pension still 1Omnibus film set in a small hotel which becomes home to parents attempting to come to terms with the loss of their child, a couple trying to rekindle their marriage, a woman who insists on staying in her preferred room, and the substitute manager who invites his girlfriend over for the evening.

April 17, 7pm: Memories of a Dead End

Introduction and Q&A with director Choi Hyun-young

memories of a dead end still 1A young woman in a long distance relationship with a man from Nagoya decides to visit him when he drops out of contact only to discover he is engaged to someone else.

April 23, 7pm: Memories of My Body

Memories of my body still 1A Lengger dancer looks back on his life as a tale of growing acceptance of sensuality lived against a turbulent political backdrop.

April 24, 7pm – Tracey

Tracey still 1A 51-year-old married father begins to reconsider his life choices after the death of a friend, eventually coming to an acceptance of a transgender identity.

Asian Pop-up Cinema Season 8 runs March 12 to April 24. Full details for all the films are available via the festival’s official website. You can also keep up with all the latest news by following Asian Pop-up Cinema on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.