Why this Singapore film's historic win at one of the world's most important festivals matters

Why this Singapore film's historic win at one of the world's most important festivals matters

Yeo Siew Hua is the first Singaporean to win the Golden Leopard award at Locarno, and he hopes A Land Imagined will start a conversation – 'not elsewhere but here'.

With the ongoing Crazy Rich Asians global hype, excitement and expectation, it is all too easy to miss another historic milestone in Singapore cinema: Homegrown filmmaker Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined is the first film from Singapore to win the prestigious Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland.

On Aug 11, Yeo’s Mandarin thriller about the disappearance of a migrant Chinese construction worker at a Singapore land reclamation site took home the grand prize for Best Film at the 71st edition of one of the world’s most respected film festivals. 

The Golden Leopard top prize is worth 90,000 Swiss francs (S$120,000).

Singaporean grand prize Best Film 71st Locarno Film Festival
A Land Imagined lead actress Luna Kwok and director Yeo Siew Hua at the 71st Locarno Film Festival. (Alexandra Wey / Keystone via AP)

The film also clinched the first prize at the festival’s Junior Jury Awards, plus a Special Mention from the Ecumenical Jury (for “sensitising the viewer to religious, people-related, and social values"). In addition, independent critics presented A Land Imagined’s lead actress, Luna Kwok, with the Boccalino d’Oro Prize for Best Actress.

Yeo told CNA Lifestyle that his mind “just went completely blank” when he first heard that he had won. After all, there were heavyweights in the competition, including well-received features by filmmakers Hong Sang-soo, Radu Muntean and Kent Jones.

“After the initial shock, I was overwhelmed at the thought that people really cared about a film like ours, and that all our hard work is finally being recognised,” he shared. “I was just really, really touched.”

“It signals to me that times have changed and maybe the world is now ready to hear our stories,” said Yeo, who wanted this film to showcase the people he felt he needed to represent in Singapore.


Winning at Locarno is a massive achievement for the avant-garde auteur. The first edition was held in 1946, making it the first international film festival to take place after World War II.

And while Locarno may be not as famously familiar as fellow festivals such as Cannes or Venice, it has made a name for itself in the international film community by serving as a hotbed for innovative, art house films, with entries that embrace new forms or ideas about cinema.

Roberto Rossellini's 1945 Italian classic Rome, Open City and 2006 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner The Lives of Others by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck are examples of such edgy filmmaking that have won big at Locarno.


Reactions among the Singapore film community have been effusive, signalling the importance of this win for the local industry. Fellow filmmaker Tan Pin Pin celebrated Yeo’s win on Facebook, writing: “The grand prize, not sure if the powers that be understand how big this is!”

Which lead us back to the perennial question: Must Singaporean filmmakers first win awards abroad before getting recognised in one’s own home country?

"It seems to be the case," said Yeo. "But cinema culture here in Singapore is at a very young stage. It's maybe hard to understand the appreciation and relevance without setting it within a larger context."

"That said, I think all cinema made with sincerity is unique and deserving of its own way of spectatorship. It is important that a piece of work is appreciated by the local viewer it addresses, and having recognition from the international community helps to give it a certain perspective that might be lacking otherwise," he continued.


Ultimately for Yeo, the greatest reward for winning at Locarno is to know “that what we have achieved here is something that will form ripples and have larger implications on cinema from this part of the world".

"I am heartened to hear some filmmaker friends from Singapore and the region who felt that my winning the grand prize in a top festival is a sign that a larger international audience is now interested in hearing our stories and feel encouraged to make their own films," he said.

So, exactly how important is a win like this for Singapore film?

“I hope it is important,” said Yeo. “We can't just always celebrate our thriving economy. I think it's time people look our way and see the dedication and sophistication in our arts. But before that can happen, we need to be able to embrace our own and care for the health of our arts here.”

And the chance to do so will be when A Land Imagined gets a theatrical release in Singapore. It will “definitely” be screened locally, according to Yeo, with exact release dates still being discussed.

“It shouldn’t be for too long now,” he shared. “It's a film dedicated to this land, made for my audience here, and I hope it starts a conversation – not elsewhere but here”.

Source: CNA/gl