Cannes debut for Singapore director K. Rajagopal's first feature A Yellow Bird

A cinema still of Singaporean film-maker K. Rajagopal's feature film A Yellow Bird. PHOTO: AKANGA FILM ASIA

SINGAPORE - Two decades after self-taught Singapore film-maker K. Rajagopal took flight as an award-winning director of short films, he will finally debut his feature-length work.

A Yellow Bird has been selected to screen at International Critics' Week, a parallel section of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, which will be held this year from May 11 to 22.

The Singapore flag is flying high at the festival. Last week, it was announced that film-maker Boo Junfeng's second feature, prison drama Apprentice, would be part of the Un Certain Regard line-up. The Un Certain Regard highlights new directors and films which are more adventurous than those in the main competition.

Rajagopal, who is in Kerala on a personal trip, tells The Straits Times in an email that while the selection committee gave him "positive comments" after viewing the film, he was still on tenterhooks while waiting for the final decision.

In A Yellow Bird, 38-year-old Siva (Sivakumar Palakrishnan) is released from prison after eight years for smuggling contraband but finds no forgiveness from his mother (Seema Biswas) and his ex-wife and daughter have left him. He later connects with a Chinese woman (Huang Lu) who is working illegally to pay off her family's debts.

Rajagopal, 51, adds that his work is for everyone: "It is a very simple film about ordinary people whom everyone will be familiar with and can easily identify with. The protagonist is a Singaporean Indian whom all of us would have met in our daily life."

The International Critics' Week showcases the first and second feature films of directors and has been the launching pad of auteurs such as Hong Kong's Wong Kar Wai, Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and France's Jacques Audiard.

A Yellow Bird is in competition against six other movies for the section's top Nespresso Grand Prize as well as the France 4 Visionary Award that celebrates innovative cinema.

As a first-time feature director, Rajagopal is also eligible for the Camera d'Or, which Singapore's Anthony Chen won for his family drama Ilo Ilo (2013).

He would also like A Yellow Bird to screen at this year's Singapore International Film Festival, which he says "gave me a good platform to continue making my short films".

He won the Special Jury Prize at the Singapore film festival from 1995 to 1997 for his short films I Can't Sleep Tonight, The Glare and Absence. All three were done on shoestring budgets of less than $1,000 each, and dealt with social and personal issues such as the death of a loved one and spousal abuse.

But despite the acclaim for his shorts, he says helming a feature for the first time was a "big jump" to make.

The biggest challenge he discovered was the script. "I have made my short films without a script and just went with my intuition and experimented a lot when making them, but with the feature it was risky to do that."

A Yellow Bird is a Singapore-France co-production and is supported by the New Talent Feature Grant of the Media Development Authority of Singapore. In 2014, it was also picked for Cannes' Cinefondation L'Atelier, at which directors get to pitch their projects to potential investors.

It took him three years to complete the project. He explains: "It was my first feature and for me it felt it could be my only chance to do it and I wanted to do it right. I was determined to make sure that this was the story I want to tell and it took us 10 drafts to finally realise the film."

The fine-tuning paid off. On the strength of the script, acclaimed actresses Biswas (Bandit Queen, 1994) and Huang (Blind Mountain, 2007) signed on.

Ultimately, Rajagopal hopes the Critics' Week platform will lead to more festival invitations and a wider audience. He says: "I want the film to be seen and appreciated by a wide audience and know their response to the film."

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