Birdshot is the sophomore feature from writer-director Mikhail Red, winner of the Best New Director award at the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival for his debut Rekorder (2013). Red’s first feature was an urban crime tale in the vein of Blow-Up (1966) and Blow Out (1981) in which a cameraman who haunts night-time cinema screenings in tech-obsessed Manila accidentally records a murder and finds himself hunted. Birdshot is also a tale of people being hunted but this one is set in the sunny, low-tech open spaces of the Philippine countryside.
The locations are farmlands, rolling hills and grasslands somewhere in Davao on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, a place where a forest sanctuary housing the endangered and protected Philippine Eagle (also known as the Haribon) exists. A certain uncivilised feeling can be found off the tarmacked roads which is where most of the action takes place. It’s story centres on two people: a young Filipina farm girl named Maya (Mary Joy Apostol) and Domingo (Arnold Reyes), a rookie cop investigating missing farmers. While the two may be different genders and ages, they mirror each other in many ways.
Both start off virginal to the environment around them. Newly minted adolescent Maya has been kept safe and somewhat isolated on the farm by her father while Domingo (Manuel Aquino) and his young family are new to the rural area he will be policing. Both make their way out into the world, Maya maturing into a young woman who will experience her first menstrual cycle and discover self-sufficiency, while Domingo is a naive and high-minded budding detective who will find out that policing is different out in the sticks where corruption is rife. Both have elders trying to protect them. Maya has her gentle and grizzled (in both senses of the word) father Diego who tries to teach her self-defence and the way of the land. For Domingo, it is his grizzled (again, in both senses of the word) slightly bent cop partner Mendoza (John Arcilla). Both become inverted versions of themselves as they mature in the same world
These transformations occur because of a deadly mistake that Maya makes when she wanders past the boundaries of the eagle reservation into the protected forest and she mistakenly shoots and kills a Haribon. Her rifle shell, the titular birdshot, may not have the power of the more famous buckshot shells but its effects are still devastating as she becomes the focus of a police investigation into poaching and she crosses paths with Domingo who finds himself ordered to track down the poacher, little realising that it is a teen girl.
Domingo has his own problems as an investigation he personally conducts into missing local farmers leads to allegations that politicians may be involved. He is soon targeted by people who want to keep the disappearances a secret and Domingo’s family winds up in the cross-hairs of corrupt cops. A third of the way through the film, the hunters become the hunted.
The script, co-written by Red and his cousin Rae Red, aims for some social relevance and finds it by positioning the relatively innocent characters of Maya and her father Diego as the prey in a land full of predators. What transpires is gorgeously shot story of survival where Maya and Diego are hunted by the police and their plight at the hands of authorities becomes emblematic of the missing farmers while Domingo’s fate is a direct criticism of corruption dogging society. The narrative slug takes time to reach its target but when it hits in its bloody finale it has the penetrating power of social relevance ensuring the impact of its brutal finale thanks to some fine performances from the entire cast who convincingly transform over the course of the film.
The maturing of the characters begins with violence that shatters their perceptions of the world and their continued growth is informed by violence. The filmmakers love to juxtapose and switch the positions of predator and prey to create tension and this is done well as the twin narrative thrust of a standard police procedural where the most optimistic law-enforcement officer finds himself violently invading and defining Maya’s coming-of-age story if he wants to survive.
Eagles and police officers, dominant species, are just as easy to hunt and hurt. Maya, a teen girl has a lot of grit and proves to be far more resilient than the truculent teen we meet at the beginning. This development is delivered in a rather laconic film. Red favours using long languorous shots of the rich landscape to build up the atmosphere of the island. Maya spends her days near waterfalls and her nights in a cave where the natural light of a small fire she has built casts dramatic shadows around evoking a more primordial age. Domingo’s home, in the sort of perfect neighbourhood with white fences, feels violently assaulted when intruders break in and he is forced to stand a terrified watch over his property. There are strong moments of magical realism in the form of mysterious costumed characters who appear and disappear outside of Maya’s farmhouse and a police station that appears to be haunted at times. This all adds a layer of mysticism to the film but everything boils down to a human story of corruption and brutality.
Birdshot may feel meandering at times but Red knows where he is going and how he wants to convey his message. Everything picks up when the police investigation closes in on Maya and Diego in a series of brutal encounters while the narrative thread featuring the missing farmers is quietly picked up again for a final sequence which expects the audience to connect the dots. This is an atmospheric tour of a ruthless dog-eat-dog environment which ruthlessly chews up its inhabitants.
Birdshot will be shown on March 6 and 10 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.