The Underside of Singapore's Economic Miracle

in 14th Vladivostok International Film Festival of Asian-Pacific Countries

by Bernard Besserglik

A strong contender for one of the top prizes at the Pacific Meridian festival of Asian Pacific countries at Vladivostok was A Yellow Bird, a debut feature by the 51-year- old filmmaker K. Rajagopal from Singapore. Presenting the film, Rajagopal provided a brief description of the ethnic diversity in the city-state, one of the Asian “tigers” in which the Indian community, from which the director hails, is only one of several. Ethnic conflict, specifically between the Indian and Chinese communities, is an underlying theme of the film, although it touches on other important issues such as poverty and exploitation, both sexual and economic.

The film’s starting point is the classic premise of a prisoner completing a long prison sentence and seeking to get his life back on track. In this present instance, we see Siva, released after spending eight years in jail for smuggling offences, attempting to track down his wife and daughter and meeting determined resistance from both his sister-in- law and his mother who cannot forgive him for his criminal past. Siva’s quest takes him into the lower depths of Singaporean society. In the course of his search, he saves a Chinese prostitute from a beating at the hands of her pimp and forms a bond with her, finding some solace in her company. These scenes take place at an encampment by the river, away from the bustle of the city, one of the few places where he can unwind, and it’s there that he finds, pressed into the mud, the paper figure of a yellow bird – a symbol in local culture of good fortune.

But good fortune continues to evade Siva. He finally tracks down his ex-wife and is confronted by some ugly truths about the consequences of his past actions. In despair, he heads back to the river bank, committing one last heinous crime, and the viewer is left in little doubt that it will all end badly.

The film is notable for a powerful performance by Sivakumar Palakrishnan as Siva, who is on screen for virtually the whole film, with strong support from Seema Biswas as his mother and Huang Lu as the prostitute. It also racks up points for its portrayal of the underside of Singapore’s economic miracle – the benefits of which have clearly been shared out very unequally – and of the ethnic tensions that have been left unresolved. It’s a coherent, well- wrought piece of straightforward story-telling – no flourishes but purposeful in the realist manner pioneered by Ken Loach.

A Yellow Bird has already been screened at the Cannes festival’s Critics Week and is due for further festival screenings, but has yet to find distribution in its own country. It deserves a wider audience.

Edited by Yael Shuv