'A Yellow Bird': Cannes Review

A Yellow Bird-Still 1 - h 2016
Courtesy of ALDRUP
Dark and murky.

This feature debut from Singaporean director K. Rajagopal stars Sivakumar Palakrishnan as an Indian Singaporean trying to get his life back on track after he's been released from prison.

A Singaporean ex-con of Indian extraction has a hard time adjusting to life outside the slammer in K. Rajagopal’s poetically titled but otherwise drab debut feature, A Yellow Bird. This is one of two films from Singapore to premiere in Cannes this year — the other is Boo Junfeng’s second feature and Un Certain Regard title, Apprentice — and both movies deal with the not-often-discussed multi-ethnic side of the city-state and feature minority protagonists. But other than revealing a side of his country that’s rarely seen onscreen (Indian Singaporeans only represent about 7% of a diverse population that’s dominated by the Chinese), Rajagopal’s film is a rather colorless affair that’s unlikely to leave much of a mark either at home or abroad.

Yellow Bird’s biggest problem is that its protagonist, Siva (Sivakumar Palakrishnan), is someone with apparently only two settings; either he’s explosively angry or he suffers in silence, with both attitudes not exactly likely to warm him to audiences. The fact he's not much of a talker doesn’t help viewers understand much of his plight either, while the main friendship of sorts he strikes up is with a destitute Chinese woman, Chen Chen (Huang Lu), he meets while working as a professional mourner but with whom he can’t share more than a kind of unspoken affinity because neither speaks the other’s language. When he becomes her protector after she starts working for a violent pimp — is there any other kind? — audiences are left wondering how much Siva understands of what is really going on and what his motives are for sticking around.

It’s not like he doesn’t have something better to do, since the main thrust of the story involves the protagonist trying to find his (ex-?)wife and daughter he left behind before he went behind bars. After his mother (Seema Biswas) has thrown him out of the house, where his room’s been rented to a couple of Chinese louts, Siva tries to cajole people at the penal administration to help him find his spouse and child. This on-and-off search sets up confrontations with various women, though only the meeting with one of them (Indra Chandran) becomes something close to poignant, mostly because the writer-director and his co-writer, Jeremy Chua (also a producer), have a major plot twist up their sleeve.

Visually, Rajagopal and cinematographer Michael Zaw often keep things dark and gloomy, as if to suggest life outside prison isn’t better or lighter than it was inside (the light sources that are there are often behind the people in the scene, creating a contre-jour effect that flattens the characters and turns them into murky silhouettes without any details). This heavy-handed visual metaphor is further reinforced by often shooting Siva behind bars or grates, as if he’s still imprisoned.

Editing by Fran Borgia (also a producer on this and Apprentice) is baggy in the early going, as it takes a long time for the central character and his conflict to emerge from the material, while some introductions and exits are also handled rather abruptly, notably Chen Chen’s. The bird of the title, of course, makes an appearance, but what it is supposed to symbolize and how exactly it applies to the protagonist remains as murky as the cinematography.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics' Week)
Production companies: Akanga Film Asia, Actobates Films
Cast: Sivakumar Palakrishnan, Huang Lu, Seema Biswas, Udaya Soundari, Nithiyia Rao, Indra Chandran
Director: K. Rajagopal
Screenwriters: Jeremy Chua, K. Rajagopal
Producers: Fran Borgia, Claire Lajoumard, Jeremy Chua
Director of photography: Michael Zaw
Production designer: James Page
Editor: Fran Borgia
Sales: Alpha Violet

Not rated, 112 minutes