Wednesday, May 24, 2017
A YELLOW BIRD (2016)
Singapore has a reputation as a nation that combines free market capitalism and an authoritarian social order of the sort that gets you fined for spitting your gum out in the street and caned for many other offenses. Above all it has a reputation as an orderly place, but K. Rajagopal's film appears to belie that reputation. A Yellow Bird examines the seamy underbelly of Singapore and finds it just as vile as the slums and underworlds of other nations. It opens on a note of absurdity as people in colorful costumes prepare to march in some sort of parade. They're led by two guys wearing giant cartoon heads. It's no doubt less of a shock for the home audience than it is for the rest of us when it turns out that these are all professional mourners taking part in a funeral procession. Two of the mourners are our protagoinsts. Siva (Sivakumar Palakrishnan) is an ex-con who belongs to Singapore's Indian minority. He desperately wants to reunite with his wife and daughter but his probation officer is reluctant to tell him where they live. For all I know they have an order of protection against him, and the way he flies off the handle sometimes that would be very believable. Chen Chen (Huang Lu) is a sometime prostitute desperate to earn money to support her daughter, who's being raised elsewhere. Sick of being underpaid or ripped off by the boss mourner, Chen decides to resume the world's oldest profession. Seeing a sympathetic face in the imposing Siva, she persuades him to act as her bodyguard and collector with the one word of English she knows: "Money." She still has to go to work for a pimp who maintains two tents in the woods, and he's uncomfortable with the "black ghost" around. It's all pretty squalid and things never really get better. Just when you think the film might be shipping Siva and Chen she accuses him of stealing her savings, and just as he tries to make things right she gets arrested and exits the picture. Finally, though, with help from a somewhat sympathetic probation bureaucrat, Siva tracks down his wife and kid, finds the latter in a terrible state and promptly makes it worse. It's something of a shock that the first Singaporean film I've seen (it's trilingual, by the way) is in the grimy naturalist tradition of global cinema and not something more expressive of the Asian modernity Singapore supposedly represents. I actually appreciate A Yellow Bird more for that reason, because it refuses to flinch from the miserable lives of the underclass or to romanticize their struggles. If anything it may overstate Singaporean squalor with its portrayal of poor people living in apartment complexes that seem modeled on prisons, down to the bars in the doorways. The characters' wretchedness may be too much for some moviegoers, but there's something about the cinema of poverty that works to its advantage as cinema. When done right, it seems more real, if that's what you're looking for, than any other genre of film.