Mikhail Reid’s Birdshot delves into the converging fates of widowed Diego Mariano (Ku Aquino) and his fourteen-year old daughter Maya (May Joy Apostol) with jaded senior officer Mendoza (John Arcilla) and junior policeman Domingo (Arnold Reyes). Their personal lives intersect when Mendoza and Domingo are ordered to investigate and solve the case of a missing haribon or Philippine eagle, classified as critically endangered species. Domingo regards the case as a diversion deliberately done by his surly boss Chief De la Paz (Dido de la Paz) as a way of blocking his earnest efforts to probe into the sudden disappearance of a group of militant farmers onboard a bus to Manila.
Heeding the advice of his partner, Domingo half-heartedly accompanies Mendoza to the bird sanctuary where they meet a forest ranger (Rolando Inocencio), who gives a short spiel about the threatened species and its rare sightings. After walking around the sanctuary, Mendoza at the property line asks about a farmhouse he spots in the distance. The ranger informs them that the caretaker Diego lives in the house with Maya. The three walk over to Diego’s house and noticing markings on the ground, Mendoza grills Diego on what he may know about the eagle’s whereabouts. But Diego protective of Maya who shot the eagle in a juvenile outburst of proving one’s self, denies hearing any gunshots and owning a gun. Outside the house, the ranger engages in small talk with Maya, and ask about the claw dangling from her necklace. She ignores his question and the ranger leaves with the police officers and whispers to them his hunch about the perpetrators.
Pressured by the Chief to find the culprit, Mendoza and Domingo return to accuse Diego for hiding the gun used to shoot the missing eagle. They arrest and imprison him. Mendoza starts to torture Diego and enjoins Domingo to hit him and bruise his face using their wedding rings. Domingo reluctantly punches him but, due to his frustration with the police bureaucracy, he vents his misplaced rage on Diego and smacks him with several blows.
Despite the assault, Diego survives and in a prison break with his fellow inmates, escapes and returns to his home to check on Maya. Domingo and Mendoza hunt him down back at the farm. Mendoza and Diego die in a shoot-out. Maya aims her gun on Domingo bloodied and slumped by the police van. She spares his life, and Domingo drives off and breaks down in tears.
Maya spends the night lying beside Diego. Awakened by the shrieks of eagles, Maya is surprised to see a flock fly by. She follows the birds’ shrill sounds with wide-eyed curiosity. She stumbles into a hidden pit filled with the salvaged bodies of the missing farmers. She is stumped by what she sees, and the camera rises and tilts up to the sky to reveal the circling eagles ready to descend and feast on the festering corpses.
Red’s closing epiphany is grisly, yet it effectively ties up in a visual way the different thematic strands that he weaves throughout the film. One particular angle that Red (with co-writer Rae Red) burrows into his screenplay is the clash of generations, how on one side the older group as represented by Mendoza and Diego with their expedient mindset is comfortable and show no scruples with covering-up corrupt practices, and how on the other side their younger cohorts are driven by the impulse to uncover the truth for themselves, even if it entails transgressing protocols and social conventions. Mendoza urges Domingo to drop his investigation for fear of stepping beyond his rank and implicating his superiors and hacienda landlords as accessories to the farmers’ disappearance. Diego buries with Maya the gun she used to shoot the eagle with and sternly instructs her not to discuss the incident with anyone. Faced with these restrictions, both Domingo and Maya experience a rude awakening, the former about the culture of subservience and retaliation in the police force and for the latter, the random violence prevalent in the harsh world. Unfortunately, these realizations lead to no agency for change. The sins of the elders are perpetuated by the youth. In Domingo’s case, he learns to think and act like Mendoza when he pummels Diego, suggests a plan to plant evidence and shoots Bala, Maya’s pet dog. Domingo and Maya are made to understand that like the eagles eyeing the carrion in the mass grave below, the privileged are favored by the law and regard everyone else as fodder for consumption.
Red shuns conveying this acerbic social commentary with a gritty look. Together with the cinematographer Mycko David, Red pursues a poetic style where the composition is consistently engaging with atmospheric as befits the story’s rustic setting. The angular chiaroscuro treatment in the interior night scenes is particularly noteworthy and the sharp shadows accent the narratives’ noirish subtext.
At times though, the camera work shows a fragmented impression of the milieu’s geography. The film’s sense of place is ambiguous and confusing. The relationship of the different action spaces is shaky. The remoteness of Maya’s home from the police precinct and sanctuary feels forced and raises such questions as given the distance, how is it possible for Maya not to be aware at all of the nearby sanctuary’s warnings and penalties.
There are also instances when the interplay of the studied production design (Michael N. Espanol), art direction (James Arvin Rosendal) and evocative music (Teresa Barrozo) suggests an artificial world where certain sequences are contrived to advance the film’s narrative aims. To some extent, this result affects the authenticity of some performances, specifically by Aquino and Apostol. For example, despite her efforts to portray Maya’s pubescent ambitions, Apostol’s performance is handicapped by the incredulity of her character’s ignorance of local laws and wearing a bird claw on her necklace. On the other hand, the solid acting by Arcilla, de la Paz, and Reyes generates strong screen presence. The palpable bite in their performances springs from the verisimilitude of their roles, the way their characters mirror the all too familiar dizzying spins and labyrinthine twists and turns of local police work.
A SANCTUARY OF CYNICISM AND DEPRAVITIES
Shirley O. Lua
All it takes is just one sure shot.
The premise of Birdshot, framed in an atmosphere of danger and mystery, signals the fatalistic proclivities of the film. Diego (Ku Aquino), a caretaker, teaches his daughter Maya (Mary Joy Apostol) how to use a rifle so she would know how to fend for herself. They live in a small hut, situated in a far-flung cornfield. In the village, tales of vanishing boys are whispered about. In a parallel narrative, two police officers Domingo (Arnold Reyes) and Mendoza (John Arcilla) search for a bus which has disappeared on its trip from San Jose to Manila. Domingo, new to the force, is an idealistic young man who tries to do the right thing as befitting one who wears a badge, while Mendoza is the jaded captain, who has survived long in the force and has seen much of the evil of men.
Young Maya chances upon a broken-down fence, unknowingly to her, an illicit access into the bird sanctuary. She sees a haribon, a Philippine eagle, and makes it the target of her shooting practice. Her ignorance would later lead to dire, tragic consequences.
Mendoza and Domingo are ordered by headquarters to stop investigating the disappearance of the bus and instead are reassigned to locate a missing haribon. Domingo, determined to solve the initial case, discovers that the missing passengers in the bus are farmers from Hacienda del Carmen who have been engaged in land disputes and have intended to go to Manila to make their voices heard.
Birdshot is a crime film. The grime and grittiness usually depicted in an urban milieu are transported to a small police precinct in a municipality. Scenes taking place in its dingy offices, corridors and prison cells are shrouded in darkness, as if it is always night inside the station. This noirish appearance serves as a scathing indictment of the local police force, which is riddled with a general attitude of ineptitude, the hard-heartedness of veterans, the corruption of top honchos, and the disillusionment of neophytes. They are not the law, for the law is in the hands of the powerful unseen. There is no pursuit of justice, for justice is a mockery. The true perpetrators of crimes are untouchable, for they are mere shadows.
The bird sanctuary is an ironic representation of troubles in our native land – timber poaching, illegal logging, bribery of government officials, misuse of funds, extinction of animals. Perhaps a missing bird should be treated as a “national” distress, more than a busload of missing villagers. Perhaps a murdered bird is an innocuous misdemeanor, safer to deal with than the massacre of human beings. Ironically, a sanctuary can hide greater secrets, its forest haunted by restless spirits and the reverberations of devious deeds.
Birdshot is an unabashed exposé of the social ills lurking in remote places of our sad archipelago. It attempts to hit many birds with one stone (excuse the idiom): abuse of power, agrarian problems, corruption, destruction of natural resources, human isolation, and mortal depravity. In its most disturbing and cynical rendition, the film illustrates an unhealthy social environment where ruthless violence hastens answers, children must learn how to use a gun and the disabled are readily disposed of (the most shocking portrait of irrational brutality is the jail sequence). This kind of social atmosphere overflows with mistrust and fear and approaches the communal with a guarded dispassion. As one character scornfully observes, “Everyone is a ticking bomb…” Such is the moral vision of the film’s author.
There is no sure shot of redemption. Even the main characters are not spared. Both Domingo and Maya start our as innocent (the film brands them “naïve”) and descend into a dog-eat-dog world, where every fear must be combatted with gunshots, and their future cannot mount up with wings like eagle. In a postindustrial landscape of globalization, this film stands out in its remote darkness, its contained isolation, its cynical splendor.
Birdshot is an unforgettable sanctuary in the hands of director Mikhail Red. Mycko David’s cinematography is vividly striking, from the breathtaking shots of the countryside to the intimate play of candlelight in Maya’s house. Arcilla and Reyes are exceptional in their roles as police officers.
BIRDSHOT (2017) Direction: MIKHAIL RED; Screenplay: RAE RED, MIKHAIL RED; Production Design; MICHAEL N. ESPANOL; Cinematography: MYCKO DAVID; Editing: JAY HALILI, MIKHAIL RED; Music: TERESA BARROZO; Sound: AIAN CARO; Cast: MARY JOY APOSTOL (Maya), KU AQUINO (Diego), JOHN ARCILLA (Mendoza), ARNOLD REYES (Domingo); Produced: PAMELA L. REYES, TING NEBRIDA, FERNANDO ORTIGAS, E.A. ROCHA, MARICRIS CALILUNG; Running Time: 116 mins.
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