“A Yellow Bird” opens with a shot of a gloomy fellow, Siva, riding in a van. It will be a further hour into the film’s runtime before anyone laughs or smiles, and no wonder: The lives portrayed in this Singaporean debut by director K. Rajagopal are far from cosseted. Siva is an ex-con, recently released, whose wife has remarried in the interim. A charmless, sweaty and sombre man whose simmering temper is always ready to boil over, he works as a hired mourner in funeral processions — an ill-paid job for which his habitually morose facial expression makes him a good fit. “A Yellow Bird” is fairly convincing and feels authentic, but the film will not readily appeal to audiences who prefer a balance of light and shade.
Working from a script co-written with Jeremy Chua, Rajagopal’s gritty, realistic approach extends to the film’s depressingly accurate portrayal of sex work — a million miles removed from the enduring “Pretty Woman” fantasy. A first encounter between Siva (played by Sivakumar Palakrishnan) and sex worker Chen Chen (Huang Lu) is the first sign that he might have a softer side. When Chen Chen tells a verbally abusive man that she’d “rather f— a dog”, he physically attacks her; Siva steps in to defend her, after which Chen Chen invites him to be her bodyguard. Siva’s new place of work is hardly less depressing than working at funerals: an al fresco brothel in a forest, in whose grim makeshift tents random punters show up for $20 fellatio and $40 intercourse.
Part of the pair’s bond seems forged from common oppression. Chen Chen’s status as an illegal sex worker marks her as an outsider, as does Siva’s as both an ex-con and an ethnic minority amidst Singapore’s mostly Chinese population. Chen Chen is constantly addressed as “slut” while Siva’s ethnicity rarely passes without comment, whether it’s the aggressive epithet “black ghost” or the relatively mild “Indian”.
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A false note in the otherwise relentless realism is arguably the fact that, apart from his estranged wife, women seem incredibly keen on Siva — despite his dour bearing, he is propositioned three times in the film, though only one of the encounters leads to anything. Possibly it’s an indictment of the other men available to these women that Siva might be considered a catch.
Despite content that could have been handled in an exploitative fashion, “A Yellow Bird” is largely restrained in terms of what we see, although the language is salty enough: Even before he starts his brothel-based job, Siva swears every other time he opens his mouth. The general pitch at which most lines are delivered can become tiring — there is an awful lot of shouting here. But of course it’s credible that people in these situations are fraught, frantic and at their wit’s end. What’s harder to believe is that audiences will be keen to spend time in this world. It’s a pretty tough sell, internationally, and perhaps in Singapore too.