Yeo’s neo-noir thriller, A Land Imagined, clinched the coveted Golden Leopard prize at the Locarno Film Festival last year.
Sitting in a small conference room with sleeves rolled up till just below the elbows and spotting a ring and stud on his left earlobe, Yeo Siew Hua could just be a regular nine-to-ﬁve guy who frequents coffee shops for his meals.
But he isn’t just another face in the crowd.
A Land Imagined, his neo-noir ﬁlm about a jaded Singapore detective investigating the disappearance of a Chinese construction worker, swept the Golden Leopard grand prize – the ﬁrst for a Singapore-made ﬁlm – at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland last August.
Known as a premier platform for art house productions, Locarno is one of the longest-running international ﬁlm festivals. Golden Leopard’s alumni include such cinematic giants as Stanley Kubrick and John Ford, the latter regarded by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman as “the greatest director in the world”.
A Land Imagined has since garnered 12 other awards around the world in places such as Germany, Spain and Australia, as well as at the 2018 Singapore Film Festival for Best Asian Feature. Yeo is now among a new breed of ﬁlmmakers, including Kirsten Tan and Anthony Chen, who is chomping at the bit to take the Singapore movie brand to a higher level – after the likes of Eric Khoo, Jack Neo and Glen Goei revived the industry in the 1990s.
Even so, unlike Hollywood blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, Yeo’s Golden Leopard gem opened only at six cinemas in February and at limited show times, despite the glowing reviews it received here and overseas. “Singapore ﬁlms don’t have the marketing might that Hollywood movies have, so our staying power is not as strong and cinema operators tend to pull them out once crowds start to dwindle,” says Yeo, 33.
But he is determined to press on. The Singapore ﬁlmmaker says it cost under $1 million to make the ﬁlm and he is conﬁdent of recouping the cost, with it even sustaining him until his next project, tentatively titled Stranger Eyes, which he is already working on.
So engrossed in his mission, he says he is constantly thinking about topics for future ﬁlms, so much so he hasn’t much time for anything else. “Even when I travel, I watch ﬁlms to get a sense of the audience elsewhere. My job is tough, but I love what I do and meeting cinema-goers is one of the most rewarding things for me.”
He started writing and producing short ﬁlms in 2005 and, after graduating from Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Film & Media Studies in 2009, he made his ﬁrst feature ﬁlm, In the House of Straw. Five years later, he produced The Obs: A Singapore Story, a documentary about famed local electronica band The Observatory, before moving on to A Land Imagined.
He isn’t concerned that his production rate is a ﬁlm every four to ﬁve years. “The worst situation to be in is feeling the need to make a ﬁlm every year. You will turn out mediocre stuff .”
Coming from an upper middleclass family with parents who are architects, he says he is privileged to have the luxury to fully focus on his goal of making a mark as a ﬁlmmaker and helping Singapore make an impact globally.
“In my travels, I ﬁnd that people overseas can’t form an idea of what Singapore cinema is, unlike say the Iranians, whose craft is wellknown,” he adds. “As a brand, as a movement, as a wave, we have not arrived there yet. It is still a struggle for us, but I like to be part of this struggle that is deﬁning the shape and form of Singapore ﬁlms.”
01 SING LIT
“My favourite local works of literature are probably The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew and Dan Koh’s Jurong My Love.”
02 BORDER CROSSING
“My ideal vacation is a drive through Malaysia… As someone who has travelled to almost 30 countries in the past nine months to present at film festivals, the idea of being close to home is very alluring.”
03 RICE RICE BABY
“I enjoy cai peng (economy rice) as it feels home-cooked and you can switch it up in terms of ingredient combinations. It’s one of the reasons why I find it hard to leave Singapore for an extended period of time.”
TEXT IAN DE COTTA PHOTOGRAPHY DARREN CHANG ART DIRECTION FAZLIE HASHIM CLOTHES CYC MADE TO MEASURE