Director K. Rajagopal says his grim drama A Yellow Bird has light moments

Sivakumar Palakrishnan and Huang Lu in A Yellow Bird.
Sivakumar Palakrishnan and Huang Lu in A Yellow Bird.PHOTO: LIGHTHOUSE PICTURES

K. Rajagopal's film, A Yellow Bird, explores racial issues and alienation

K. Rajagopal makes no apologies if audiences find his movie A Yellow Bird too grim.

The story of a man freed from prison only to find that Singapore society is yet another suffocating enclosure, it has been called "gloomy", "depressing" and "dark" by critics at Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. They saw the film at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was selected for the International Critics' Week.

Rajagopal, 51, says: "I didn't want to compromise. I didn't think, 'Oh this is too heavy-going here, let's lighten it up.'"

The film-maker - who spoke to The Straits Times on the telephone from Goa, India, where he is filming - also thinks that the few moments of lightness in the film might have sailed over the heads of some people.

"What is light to me might not be light to other people," he says.

He mentions the opening moments. Ex-convict Siva (played by Sivakumar Palakrishnan) dons a Technicolor cowboy outfit and is hitting a gong and walking in step with a Chinese funeral band. It is a typically Singaporean yet quite absurd scene.

"The band was real. They had the sunglasses and the funky shoes," Rajagopal says.

 

His team made cold calls until they found a willing band and, coincidentally, their uniforms were yellow.

Funeral bands are daily-rated, so they attract anyone looking for immediate cash. They also have no racial barriers, Rajagopal says.

Siva went to a few real funeral processions for practice before filming and, because his character sleeps at void decks, the actor also slept a few nights at the void decks of Housing Board flats in Maude Road, which is close to Little India - this was a mighty effort for a man with a cockroach phobia.

Racial issues are a topic in the film, although it is not addressed directly. The protagonist, for example, is in one scene an innocent bystander in a Little India riot. If he had been arrested, the implication is that the authorities might have seen his race before they saw him as a person.

Being in a racial minority in Singapore informs Rajagopal's work. It hovers over his segment in the 7 Letters (2015) anthology, The Flame, which is about the conflict between an Indian man and his son over whether they should accept the offer of British citizenship when the colonial army withdraws from Singapore.

"The issue of who I am in my own country, in my own space, is something I have always asked," he says.

The intellectual roots of A Yellow Bird might have come from writers such as French philosopher Albert Camus, known for writing about outsiderhood in books such as The Stranger.

But Rajagopal's fascination with alienation was also piqued by a man he noticed years ago, when he worked in the Lavender Street area.

The man sat in a coffee shop, in the same spot, every day, half-asleep. He was a daily-rated corpse hauler for the funeral homes in the area. His job was to pull bodies from deathbeds and crime scenes.

"He was quiet, intense and alone. It seemed he didn't have a home. That and funeral bands are in my imagination for the film," he says.

The film-maker adds that migrant workers like the character of Chen Chen in the movie, who develops a bond with Siva, are natural outsiders, seen by many as a threat to the Singapore way of life.

He picked Chinese actress Huang Lu, a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, to play Chen Chen after auditioning many locals who could not get the China accent right. He also admired her performance in arthouse work Blind Massage (2014).

Rajagopal says: "There is a tension when you have Chinese from China here... they belong to the majority, yet are not Singaporean. Siva and Chen Chen are kindred spirits."

•A Yellow Bird opens tomorrow.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2016, with the headline 'Grim world of outsiders'. Print Edition | Subscribe