The Philippine eagle, its majestic presence soaring on picturesque milieus of the countryside, is both a victim and a witness in Mikhail Red’s second feature. True to its name, BIRDSHOT hits two genres with Red’s confident direction; a moody coming-of-age tale intertwined with a suspenseful crime story that converged into a riveting finish. More impressive is how its maker had done it with finesse and maturity (in his early 20s). It might be too early to say that the future of Philippine cinema is in guaranteed hands but rest assured that filmmakers like Red have a vision on where it could lead.
It is interesting to note that prior to the Philippine eagle, the country’s national bird was lonchura antricapilla – the scientific name for ‘red maya’. Personified by newcomer Mary Joy Apostol, Maya is a daughter of a caretaker of a land from a nearby eagle sanctuary, who spends her idyll days yearning to see the world beyond, like a caged bird fluttering for freedom. But instead of learning how to fly, she is taught how to fire a rifle by her father (Ku Aquino) by means of self-efficiency. In dire circumstances, the naïve yet stubborn Maya becomes an unwitting gunslinger; the bold image of her holding a weapon with a red scarf (or poncho) is the closest inspiration to a Western movie (with a local touch). Not only was it striking to behold a female protagonist portrayed with such symbolic power, but also beguiling on how her transformation ties to the other half of the film.
Maya as the hunter turned hunted
The procedural nature unravels with John Arcilla (Heneral Luna) and Arnold Reyes as police officers Mendoza and Domingo, respectively; who were originally tasked to probe the case of a missing provincial bus en route to Manila. The film’s tagline “Paano kung may malaman ka na hindi mo dapat malaman?” forewarns Domingo’s descent to violence as he vainly searched for the truth. The good cop, who had winced on Mendoza’s cruel methodology of obtaining intelligence, proved that he could be worse (or at least at par) when he spiralled from idealism to violence. Though set in the 1990s, BIRDSHOT is eerily resonant on its unflinching depiction of brutality, especially concerning the law. Coming off as cool yet cynical, Mendoza does not think twice on inflicting damage to persons of interest; and he is more eager to witness Domingo’s quick embrace of the policemen’s norm. The invisible hand of corruption orchestrates the series of social injustice that Domingo was dogged to solve, but the film does not simply settle for claiming justice…
Domingo (L) and Mendoza (R) on their patrol
While most coming-of-age stories saw optimism at the end of the tunnel, BIRDSHOT soberly aims for an ambiguous ending that only the king of birds can see. They hover on the persecuted ground that evokes a haunting closing shot. Unhurried on its pace, the film firmly established the parallel tales on the loss of innocence. The independence Maya had hoped for came with a price while the paranoia that descended upon Domingo took toll on his family and career. In his sophomore outing, Red masterfully balanced and conjoined the two parts that made the whole more intriguing and poetic. Brooding in its core, BIRDSHOT is precise on targeting thought-provoking allusions whose feathers remain grounded on a true event. The filming locations are both serene and unsettling, captured on natural light which is only fitting since this battle for survival is staged on troubled troposphere.
As a blossoming young woman, Maya’s graduation from child’s play was brutal and tragic. All because of a death of a haribon. Easily one of this year’s most excellent films (winning the ‘Asian Future Best Film Award’ in the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival), BIRDSHOT contemplates on the wrong-doings of man against himself and to the world he lives in. And it is up to the paramount of the food chain (or pyramid) to pass the sentence.
Screened during the first-ever Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino (August 2017)
*Photo credits to owners.