Siva (Sivakumar Palakrishnan) is always on the outside looking in. As an ex-convict, getting out of prison only presented more challenges. Life outside it means dealing with himself. As a Singaporean-Indian, he’s already a pariah, relegated to cleaning and funeral procession jobs. And as a father, he has hurt his ex-wife and daughter badly so even his own mother (Seema Biswas) rejects him. For the bulk of his screen time, he searches for them. From the start, writer/director K. Rajagopal makes it clear that this is a hopeless pursuit.
An equally shunned Chinese immigrant, an unnamed prostitute played by Lu Huang (hereafter Huang), gives him a chance to be better. They’re strangers who don’t even share a language. In fact, Siva never responds to her. She talks at him, asking incessantly if he understands to no avail. She, like him, is on the outside looking in, but there’s only one scene where they truly connect. The rest of their relationship is an exercise in patience. Every moment between them drives home one point: they are not meant to be.
And that’s fine, but, like so much of “A Yellow Bird,” from Siva constantly gazing through iron bars to his endless downward spiral, it’s a point overstated. His family, the few friends he has, and society itself look down on him. Even though Indians are the backbone of Singaporean society, Siva is devalued for his heritage and despite knowing how that feels, he devalues Huang. Before he can apologize, start anew with her, the police take her away. Society wins as it always does.
It’s a well-made social drama, replete with long, patient shots and affecting performances, but it’s drab to a fault. K. Rajagopal can’t find the light in Siva’s sordid odyssey. Instead, he goes darker and darker until Siva has to sleep in a literal sewer, peering through sheets of corrugated metal to make sure leaving is safe.
So where’s the redemption? Don’t get me wrong: Siva doesn’t need to be redeemed for the movie to work, but there should be an indication that he can. It’s hard not to love Sivakumar Palakrishnan. His face is a well of expression, and he’s one of the few actors I’ve seen who uses his whole head to convey feeling. If you watch “A Yellow Bird,” pay attention to his ears. They speak volumes, even more than his brow.
But even he can’t save what amounts to an endurance test. At two hours, “A Yellow Bird” overstays its welcome. Siva and his love interest will always be on the outside. Singaporean society’s relationship with Indian and Chinese immigrants is steeped in blood and slavery, and no amount of hope can change this. While this may not be true in reality, “A Yellow Bird” certainly thinks it is.