Why K. Rajagopal’s "A Yellow Bird" Deserves Your Time

Written By Brandon Chai

9th Mar 2017

Category: Review

Ordinary lives are already messy and depressing enough. Why should I pay money to watch a film that reminds me of life’s absurdities?

Singaporean filmmaker K. Rajagopal’s debut feature A Yellow Bird is exactly that: gritty, dark, brooding, full of ambiguity and questions. Nominated for the Critics Week Grand Prize and Golden Camera in 2016's Cannes Film Festival, it is a film drawn from multiple anecdotes and experiences from Rajagopal’s life—a story heavily informed by Rajagopal’s Singaporean-Indian identity. It is not a film that tries to feed you an illusion of happily ever afters. Those are unattainable things one typically finds in classic Disney films and mainstream Hollywood entertainment. Instead, watching A Yellow Bird take flight is, paradoxically, a carefully crafted excavation into the underbelly of Singapore.

Singaporean filmmaker K. Rajagopal. Photo courtesy of Akanga Film Asia.

Chimes of rapid economic progress and racial harmony are excessive on tourist billboards and local broadcast media. This is an illusion that has been grafted onto our national identity. Indeed, we do have many different races living here, and it is easy to buy into this illusion. But it does not exclude us from real problems of racial discrimination and poverty. This is compounded by our shifting population and cultural landscape, as more and more foreigners assimilate here. Rajagopal takes us out of this bubble of comfort by helping us empathise with characters living along the margins of society—those left behind in the wake of Singapore’s rapidly expanding global economy.

Siva (played by Sivakumar Palakrishnan) is a man recently released from prison. His family has moved on during his absence: his mother no longer speaks to him and rents his flat to foreign workers, his wife and child have relocated. He works as a mercenary for funeral processions. During these processions, Siva feels no remorse or guilt. He is numb to the lives and deaths of those around him. There he meets Chen Chen (played by Huang Lu), a Chinese immigrant who becomes frustrated by the meagre salary they are earning and turns to prostitution. She invites Siva to be her bodyguard after an incident when he defends her from a co-worker’s abuse. He agrees, and they share some kind of an ambiguous bond. In the meantime, Siva also tracks down his ex-wife and daughter. He is desperately trying to redeem some semblance of his past, as well as his guilt towards his daughter.

Film still from A Yellow Bird (2016). Photo courtesy of Akanga Film Asia.

The Bandit Queen (1994) actress Seema Biswas as Siva's mother in A Yellow Bird (2016). Photo courtesy of Akanga Film Asia.

In a key moment in the film, a yellow bird—a symbol of hope—is shot. It falls out of its nest and onto the ground. Dead. This sudden act of violence resonates throughout the film, and punctuates it—the ending is a sequence motivated by Siva’s sheer desperation for forgiveness, for redemption.

Director Rajagopal claims Albert Camus’s The Stranger served as an inspiration. Like the novel, Rajagopal focuses more on the psychology and irrational behaviours behind his characters. Their behaviours often reveal their repressed desires and anxieties. There is a complexity behind these relationships that lends a level of authenticity. Rajagopal’s characters are desperate for love—or at least their warped imaginations of it—and the film dramatises the absurd lengths that they go in order to attain it. Especially for Siva, his reality is a prison after prison. Alienated from his family, stuck in poverty and plagued by his criminal past, his relationship with Chen Chen becomes his only source of reprieve and comfort. But even that seems to oversimplify his psychology.

The cinematography conveys an attention to spaces. Shots of Siva looking in from the outside, framed by grills or narrow corridors, are aplenty when the story takes place in urban Singapore. These reinforce his sense of entrapment. Those shots are contrasted with the scenes in the forest, which are more liberating. Notably, it is in this undefined space of the forest that Chen Chen and Siva seemingly find true connection. Unable to communicate through words, their relationship also contain echoes of desperation. These are two characters so devoid of love and tenderness that one cannot help but wonder if their feelings are genuine. What matters, according to Rajagopal, is that “she gives him hope”.

Film still from A Yellow Bird ​(2016). Photo courtesy of Akanga Film Asia.

Huang Lu as Chen Chen in A Yellow Bird ​(2016). Photo courtesy of Akanga Film Asia.

There is also a precision in language that is noteworthy. Subtle nuances like the different accents of foreign Chinese workers, colloquial vulgarities, and just the sound of local English highlights Rajagopal’s attention to detail. Singaporean films have a tendency to exaggerate how English is spoken; it is either too Americanised or too Singlish. Films like A Yellow Bird have a layer of authenticity that bears similarities to a kind of social realist aesthetic. Cinephiles might recognise some resemblance to the Dardenne brothers, for instance.

A Yellow Bird might disturb audiences to the harsher, crueler side of Singapore, and hence it might not placate everyone’s cinematic taste buds—but most great films do not, anyway. It is a film that goes beyond entertainment, using film as a medium to tell stories of the underprivileged and marginalised. Yes, it can be depressing, and at times even absurd. At the same time, it is a sobering thought knowing that there are those who continue to live a reality like Siva’s, perpetually on the outside looking in, never achieving their dreams in this country of opportunities. This presents a significant step in the right direction for Singaporean cinema, and for that it deserves attention.

A Yellow Bird is screening at The Projector this Saturday, 11 March 2017 and Sunday, 19 March 2017 at 8pm. A Q&A sesion with filmmaker K. Rajagopal will be held after each screening. More information on tickets may be found here. 

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