Receiving pride of place in the line-up for the 27th Singapore International Film Festival is A Yellow Bird, which was one of two Singaporean films to make it to Cannes Film Festival in 2016. A Yellow Bird centres on Siva (Palakrishnan), a recently-released ex-convict struggling to eke out a living. Siva discovers that his ex-wife has remarried and wants nothing to do with him, and his mother (Biswas) has rented out Siva’s room to Chinese tenants. Siva attempts working through his frustration and anger, making a few bucks working as a drummer in a funeral band. He meets Chen Chen (Huang), a Chinese prostitute who is in Singapore illegally. Seeking to provide for her young daughter, she endures the abuse of her pimp and finds solace in Siva even though they don’t speak the same language. Siva must regain his purpose as he avoids getting back in trouble with the law.
A Yellow Bird is the directorial debut of filmmaker K. Rajagopal, who penned the screenplay with Jeremy Chua. The film is unrelenting in its bleakness, sombre and depressing throughout. In capturing what it’s like to live on the fringes of a society that’s turned its back on you, A Yellow Bird feels unflinchingly authentic. However, it’s a challenge to sit through, more so because it’s dreary to the point of soporific than because it makes the viewer uncomfortable. While the tone is befitting of the subject matter, the overall oppressiveness of the film makes it difficult to get invested in Siva’s journey. Counter to what we presume were Rajagopal’s intentions, this puts distance between the audience and the characters.
A Yellow Bird portrays Singapore’s multi-ethnic society with nary a shred of idealised ‘kumbaya’ sentimentality. Siva is often on the receiving end of racial slurs and Chen Chen is similarly ostracised, being a sex worker from Mainland China. The film’s handling of this brims with heartache, is tinged with pessimism and the way the characters are treated does feel sickeningly plausible. Part of the film is set in a makeshift brothel in a swampy forest, and this most unwelcoming of settings unexpectedly leads to some beautiful, serene visuals.
Siva is far from a likeable character, which is a brave move on Rajagopal’s part. Siva shuffles between being explosively belligerent and sullenly stoic, with Palakrishnan remaining watchable if not exactly a force of charisma. This is the most significant acting role thus far for Palakrishnan, who works mostly as a documentary producer and director. Siva is given a motorised scooter that he cares for, Chen Chen teasingly saying that it’s as if Siva believes the scooter actually is a motorcycle. It functions almost as a pet, a humanising element. There is a purity to the performance, but the plot point of Siva apparently being catnip to the ladies stands at odds with the movie’s dour realism. This is a deliberately unattractive character who has women throwing themselves at him with some frequency.
Huang provides the film’s emotional centre, and while the character is sensitively acted and painfully tragic, the film does veer close to falling back on the “hooker with a heart of gold” archetype. The relationship between Chen Chen and Siva gives the film a sliver of tenderness, but it’s inevitable that any happiness either party might find will be strictly short-lived. Biswas says very little throughout the film, Siva’s mother cloaking her sadness with silence. While she says plenty through her nuanced expressions, we wish the veteran actress had more to do here.
While the bulk of the film has Siva floating aimlessly through it, we are suddenly thrown chunks of plot as the movie nears its conclusion. The movie’s ending is baffling – not “intentionally vague”, but flat-out baffling. Audiences might be moved by scenes earlier in the film, but they will leave the theatre befuddled all the same.
There are things to recommend about A Yellow Bird, but it’s hard to imagine the film having any real sort of appeal. There are plenty of sad, bleak movies which audiences can form a connection to, but A Yellow Bird is a draining, largely unfulfilling experience. A Yellow Bird’s grittiness is almost punishing, and it would’ve benefitted from some modulation and a more focused narrative for audiences to latch onto.
Summary: While A Yellow Bird comes across as heartfelt, its bleakness often makes it dull and interminable, with a patently unsatisfying ending topping it all off.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars