A Yellow Bird (France/Singapore, 2016) [OAFF 2017]
A Yellow Bird is the debut feature of K Rajagopal, a Singaporean director who regularly works in theatre and television documentary. Utilising his background, Rajagopal has created an immediate picture of life at the bottom of Singaporean society, showing homelessness, alienation, and desperation, as experienced by the main character. Like its protagonist, the film is unremittingly miserable, which will unfortunately limit audience interest.
The film follows Siva (Sivakumar Palakrishnan), recently released from a prison stint. Finally free, he must pick up the pieces of his shattered life. His wife has remarried and taken their daughter elsewhere. He has a place to sleep but it is on the floor of his mother’s apartment since she has rented out the bedroom to Chinese migrants. He has two jobs but is paid a pittance as a professional mourner in funeral processions and as a dish washer at a Chinese restaurant. People from his old life refuse to talk to him, even his mother. He is angry and adrift in the world with next to no one to talk to.
Siva wanders the streets searching for a way to reconnect with his ex-wife and daughter and it is on these streets that he befriends Chen Chen (Lu Huang), a Chinese immigrant who works as a prostitute to provide money for her daughter. The two offer brief moments of happiness but will it last with the relentless pressure of poverty and the anger that Siva carries?
Audiences will probably be able to guess that Siva’s happiness will be fleeting. Indeed, one wonders whether he is even capable of feeling that emotion since all we see, from the first scene to the last, is a man with moody face tramping about Singapore, trying to overcome his past. The film never explicitly states what his crime was, it just introduces us to characters connected to Siva and shows them as the human wreckage of his bad decisions. Their reactions to him are telling: silence, derision, indifference, and anger.
Withholding information is an approach that constitites a double-edged sword. The obliqueness in storytelling may be frustrating for some viewers who want context for the story but other audience members may enjoy the fact that it means they must focus attention onto the actors who effectively display the emotional turmoil their characters feel, whether the devastating silence of Siva’s mother and her refusal to meet his gaze, the tired indifference of a Chinese-Singaporean parole officer used to dealing with Siva’s anger, or the sneers of derision expressed by his wife’s sister has. Siva has truly poisoned the atmosphere around him and the audience is well aware of it.
Reacting to this, is Palakrishnan as Siva. He works with a script that limits the range of emotions to portray his character’s struggle to anger and frustration. He comes across as stupefied with human connections, unable to react with anything other than barely suppressed fury or resignation. This constant flow of negativity makes him almost impossible to like. This may hook audiences into hanging around until the end for some clarity or make it harder for them to understand the man and enter the story. In Palakrishnan’s preparation for the film, he had to sleep rough and so it is little wonder that he looks so grim.
This is more than just the story of one broken man as we see people from different ethnic groups reacting to each other, the film probing the divide between Indian and Chinese people in Singapore. Siva dodges police crackdowns on Indian rioters, endures open prejudice (one character calls him black devil) of some of the Singaporean-Chinese. The introduction of Chen Chen adds another social dimension as the exploitation of Chinese migrant workers at the hands of Singaporean-Chinese is shown. Whether it is in low-paid jobs or, in Chen Chen’s case, an unremittingly bleak brothel that consists of a couple of tarpaulins strung up in a clearing in a forest, it is clear that life is tough for everyone. The script makes sure that she is a character in her own right and not just a prop to illuminate some of Siva’s humanity with the softer moments arising from her poignant backstory.
An overwhelming sense of unhappiness is palpable throughout A Yellow Bird and possibly tiring to endure. Happy faces are few and far between with most human relations usually ending on a negative note. There are two women who offer themselves to Siva emotionally and physically but even that is out of desperation.
In conveying these dire circumstances, the documentarian in Rajagopal brings Singapore to life in a stark and gritty way. There’s a definite bleak urban vibe to the setting, far removed from the bright neon of tourist adverts as we watch Siva scurry away from police through the cities sewers and canals, walk through soulless housing blocks made up of stiflingly claustrophobic apartments packed full of people who lack any privacy. Glimpses of blue skies are few and far between, and when the titular yellow bird does show up, it is dead on arrival.
If what one wants is social realism of the bleakest sort then there is plenty on offer here. The Yellow Bird is a tough film that staunchly refuses to back down from showing the dark side of Singapore and thanks to the quality of the direction and performances it delivers a solid social record. However, the story holds less interest. If audiences want more than a frank look at the bottom layers of Singapore then they may struggle to find it here, prompting the ultimate question of whether even the most sympathetic viewers want to experience this grim atmosphere all the way to the end.
A Yellow Bird will be shown on March 4 and 9 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2017.