Outside Looking In: “A Yellow Bird”

By Akanksha Raja

(810 words, 8-minute read)

First screened at the International Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival 2016 this summer, A Yellow Bird is K Rajagopal’s first feature film after many acclaimed, award-winning short films. His body of work shows a concern for the lives of Indians in Singapore, drawing from his experience as a member of an ethnic minority which constitutes 7% of society.

The issue of marginal ethnicity has not often been addressed in Singapore’s recent filmmaking history, and this makes A Yellow Bird a particularly significant work because of its focus on the perspectives of socially and economically alienated individuals of different nationalities that make up the present-day populace in Singapore.

Seema Biswas as mother; Photo: Donn Tan & Akanga Film Asia

The film follows the experiences of Siva (Sivakumar Palakrishnan), an Indian ex-convict from a lower-middle class background, as he begins a quest to find his wife and daughter after his release from an eight-year-long prison term. His return is met with unwelcoming silence from his mother (Seema Biswas) at her house where his room is rented by a group of non-Singaporean Chinese men. It’s not long before she throws him out of the house after he lashes out at her in frustration. In all of Biswas’ scenes, it is the weight of her stone-cold silence towards Siva that cements her impact on the story. Silence in this film seems to shape relationships; it is conversely the absence of communication that builds the bridge between Siva and Chen Chen (Huang Lu), a foreign Chinese sex worker that becomes his only source of short-lived solace in the film.

Chen Chen and Siva; Photo: Lor Hui Yun & Akanga Film Asia

It begins when he protects her from assault by a co-worker while they work as mourners in funeral processions. She consequently enlists Siva’s help as her bodyguard while she works at an illegal brothel. Despite the language barrier between them, the two develop an affinity, that turns into an intimacy, that somehow falls short of romance. There is mutual attraction and tenderness, but it seems that these characters are ultimately trapped within their separate turmoils. Between Siva’s perpetual silence (which Palakrishnan embodies with an expression of simultaneous confusion and concern) and Chen Chen’s helpless attempts to make him understand her situation, it is their poignant inability to articulate their struggles to each other that bring them to find companionship in one another.

The impact of the rest of the supporting cast feels unfulfilled. It is not very clear what the roles of Suseela (Indra Chandran), Siva’s sister-in-law, and Udaya (Udaya Soundari), an employee at the prison administration office, prove in the brief screentime they are given. Most of Udhaya’s scenes are marked by a timid yearning for connection with Siva that he scorns. Their final scene together reveals her own desperate loneliness that mirrors his and Chen Chen’s. Siva comes to Suseela asking after his family but she refuses to help, teasingly offering him sex instead, and it is implied they had a dalliance during his marriage. Perhaps these scenes serve to make Siva less likable a protagonist, or to deepen the audience’s feeling of moral ambivalence towards him, similar to the unfeeling Meursault in Albert Camus’ The Stranger, one of Rajagopal’s influences. But it would have been more interesting if these roles were substantiated further, developing more gravity than distant satellites to his loneliness.

Photo: Donn Tan & Akanga Film Asia

Visually, the film presents aspects of Singapore that are overlooked by its globally-reputed image of futuristic skyscrapers, bright sunlit gardens and luxurious lifestyles. Siva’s journey unfolds around cramped one-room flats, illegal makeshift “jungle brothels”, and lonely deserted spaces under railway tracks where he sleeps some nights. One scene finds him bathing using a public water hose in a narrow dim-lit corridor of a housing block. It is a reminder of the unnoticed but existing problem of homelessness in Singapore.

There is also a recurrent framing of scenes and characters behind “bars” formed by staircase railings or window grilles, reinforcing the anxiety of entrapment. But Michael Zaw’s cinematography of these bleak and gritty settings is balanced by a beautiful yellow-themed colour palette: sodium streetlight falling across the characters’ bodies, or light yellow walls around streets in Little India offset the shadowy gloom, and lend some visual warmth to the film.

A Yellow Bird is a glimpse into the life of an amoral individual at odds with the indifference of a home he is unwelcome in, but it is also about the indifference of socio-political structures towards some marginal ethnicities. It is apparent in a brief but powerful scene where Siva is unwittingly embroiled in a commotion in Little India, alluding to the 2013 “riot” reported in the same neighbourhood. Siva’s sense of isolation and rootlessness reflects the broader condition of homelessness faced by the marginalised in Singapore. The narrative could be strengthened with more nuanced supporting characters, but as a debut feature film that broaches underrepresented social issues with regard to migration and marginal identities, it succeeds in making an emphatic statement.

A Yellow Bird is directed by K Rajagopal and produced by Fran Borgia and Akanga Film Asia. After its world premiere at the Cannes International Critics’ Week 2016, it was screened at Busan International Film Festival, London East Asia Film Festival, Hamburg Film Festival and Five Flavours Film Festival in Poland, and most recently the Singapore International Film Festival. The film opens in Singapore cinemas on 8 December 2016. For more information, visit the film’s official Facebook page here.


Selected Reviews

“Cannes Film Review: ‘A Yellow Bird’” by Catherine Bray (Variety)

“‘A Yellow Bird‘: Cannes Review by Boyd van Hoeij” (The Hollywood Reporter)

A Yellow Bird” by Maja Korbecka (Eastern Kicks)

“Unflinching Realism” (Dumbriyani)

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