A YELLOW BIRD Deals With the Unsightly Prejudices Against an Ex-Convict Head-On
An ex-convict who is on a quest to reunite with his family forms a bond with an illegal Chinese sex worker while serving as her bodyguard.
Directors: K. Rajagopal
Cast: Sivakumar Palakrishnan, Huang Lu, Seema Biswas
Country: Singapore, France
Language: Mandarin, Tamil, English
Runtime: 112 minutes
Dressed in a showy costume, a man stands out as the only Indian in a Chinese funeral procession, glumly hitting his gong on cue. He remains mostly silent and we only start to get clues about what A Yellow Bird is about 15 minutes into the film. Siva (Sivakumar Palakrishnan) is an ex-convict who is withheld information about his family. He is desperate to find them in an effort to make amends but his impulsive nature is not doing him any favours.
Director K. Rajagopal wanted A Yellow Bird to be a film that everyone can relate to. So for the local audience, that’s exactly what you’ll get in the first half: Siva goes about his increasingly hopeless task of assimilating back into society while manoeuvring mindlessly about the ever-familiar HDB flats that locals don’t have to think twice about. The action picks up in the middle when an illegal Chinese migrant Chen Chen (Huang Lu) pulls him into the gritty world of a makeshift brothel and offers him a job as her bodyguard.
Siva, homeless and alone, is pitiful. Siva’s mother (Seema Biswas), shouted at and abused by her only son, is pitiful. Chen Chen, far from her home and her family, is pitiful. The film is all dire and gloom, immediately throwing us into a world that deviates from the spick and span image of modern Singapore.
However, throughout A Yellow Bird, we see people suffering, put into circumstances against their own wills and for the sake of people whom they love. And unfortunately, that’s where it starts to fall short. In trying to make us dive deep into the seemingly bleak and hopeless world of Siva, the overcompensation becomes more of an immersive experience than trying to evoke contemplation. There are many potentially intriguing local themes raised in A Yellow Bird that would have given the film more nuance but they are mostly off-handedly mentioned.
It also seemed like a shame that the actors and actresses’ expressions could not be seen more, under the mostly half-lit circumstances that align with the film’s dark theme. There was no doubt that the cast members are able to convey much with few lines since A Yellow Bird details a breakdown in communication of all sorts. But for a film that focuses heavily on the internal psyches of its protagonists, I would have liked to see the actors’ expressions more.
But with A Yellow Bird being Director K. Rajagopal’s first foray into feature films, his experimentation with the medium is made apparent in the unconventional framing that persists throughout. From metal grilles to gates and small windows, the sense of entrapment and claustrophobia of the aloof city constantly haunts Siva and the film. Though slightly heavy-handed, the metaphorical use of such framing works to drill in the point of Siva being an insider-outsider.
What A Yellow Bird is spot on about is its portrayal of the mix of languages in Singapore. Moving away from proper, formal CMIO languages, the film captures the intermingling of languages and the often smooth but unconscious switching from ‘proper’ speech to dialect. Though mostly crude cuss words are used to encompass the frustrated nature of the film, the quiet bond between Siva and Chen Chen becomes A Yellow Bird’s statement that relationships can transcend language in our multi-racial community.
A Yellow Bird is still testing waters, slightly unsteady in its intention. But it attempts to bring to light a grimy part of our sparkling clean city. The film does not sanitize the unsightly corners lurking in the periphery and chooses to bring us there instead, ultimately hoping to garner some empathy for these largely ignored characters who have fallen between the cracks of society.
You can catch A Yellow Bird on Netflix here. Have a look at the trailer: