Cannes Film Review: ‘A Yellow Bird’

Deliberately abrasive characters and a downbeat narrative lend K. Rajagopal's Singapore-set debut uncommercial authenticity.

Sivakumar Palakrishnan, Huang Lu, Seema Biswas, Udaya Soundari, Nithiyia Rao, Indra Chandran. (Tamil, Mandarin, English, Hokkien dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5709164/?ref_=nm_knf_t1

“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”.

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.

Cannes Film Review: 'A Yellow Bird'

Reviewed at the Cannes Film Festival (Critics' Week), May 18, 2016. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production: (Singapore/France) An Akanga Film Asia, Actobates Films production. (International sales: Alpha Violet, Paris.) Produced by Fran Borgia, Claire Lajoumard, Jeremy Chua.

Crew: Directed by K. Rajagopal. Screenplay by Rajagopal, Jeremy Chua. Camera (color, 1.85:1, HD), Michael Zaw; editor, Fran Borgia; production designer, James Page; costume designer, Meredith Lee; sound (5.1), Justin Loh, Roman Dymny.

With: Sivakumar Palakrishnan, Huang Lu, Seema Biswas, Udaya Soundari, Nithiyia Rao, Indra Chandran. (Tamil, Mandarin, English, Hokkien dialogue)

More Film

  • Alita Battle Angel

    Box Office: 'Alita: Battle Angel,' 'Lego Movie 2' to Lead President's Day Weekend

    “Alita: Battle Angel” is holding a slim lead ahead of “Lego Movie 2’s” second frame with an estimated four-day take of $29.1 million from 3,790 North American locations. “Lego Movie 2: The Second Part,” meanwhile, is heading for about $25 million for a domestic tally of around $66 million. The two films lead the pack [...]

  • Marianne Rendon, Matt Smith, Ondi Timoner

    Robert Mapplethorpe Biopic Team Talks 'Fast and Furious' Filming

    Thursday night’s New York premiere of the Matt Smith-led biopic “Mapplethorpe” took place at Cinépolis Chelsea, just steps from the Chelsea Hotel where the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe once lived — but director Ondi Timoner had no sense of that legacy when she first encountered him in a very different context. “When I was ten [...]

  • Bruno GanzSwiss Film Award in Geneva,

    Bruno Ganz, Star of 'Downfall' and 'Wings of Desire,' Dies at 77

    Bruno Ganz, the Swiss actor best known for dramatizing Adolf Hitler’s final days in 2004’s “Downfall,” has died. He was 77. Ganz died at his home in Zurich on Friday, his representatives told media outlets. The cause of death was reportedly colon cancer. More Reviews Sundance Film Review: Stephen K. Bannon in 'The Brink' Film [...]

  • Steve Bannon appears in The Brink

    Sundance Film Review: Stephen K. Bannon in 'The Brink'

    Stephen K. Bannon drinks Kombucha (who knew?), the fermented tea beverage for health fanatics that tastes like…well, if they ever invented a soft drink called Germs, that’s what Kombucha tastes like. In “The Brink,” Alison Klayman’s fly-on-the-wall, rise-and-fall-and-rise-of-a-white-nationalist documentary, Bannon explains that he likes Kombucha because it gives him a lift; he drinks it for [...]

  • Walt Disney Archives Founder Dave Smith

    Walt Disney Archives Founder Dave Smith Dies at 78

    Walt Disney Archives founder Dave Smith, the historian who spent 40 years cataloging and preserving the company’s legacy of entertainment and innovation, died Friday in Burbank, Calif. He was 78. Smith served as Disney’s chief archivist from 1970 to 2010. He was named a Disney Legend in 2007 and served as a consultant to the [...]

  • Oscar OScars Placeholder

    Cinematographers Praise Academy Reversal: 'We Thank You for Your Show of Respect'

    Cinematographers who fought the decision to curtail four Oscar presentations have praised the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for reversing the exclusions. “We thank you for your show of respect for the hard-working members of the film community, whose dedication and exceptional talents deserve the public recognition this reversal now allows them to enjoy,” [...]

  • Peter Parker and Miles Morales in

    'Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse' Colored Outside the Lines

    The well-worn superhero genre and one of its best-known icons are unlikely vehicles for creating a visually fresh animated feature. But Sony Pictures Animation’s work on the Oscar-nominated animated feature “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” shows throwing out the rule book and letting everyone play in the creative sandbox can pay off big. “I think we [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content