The Girl with the Gun (Philippines, 2019) [OAFF 2020]

Rae Red was introduced to the world through co-writing Birdshot (2017) with her cousin Mikhail Red. Since then, she has quickly accrued projects, collaborating with Mikhail on the scripts for his features Neomanila (2017) and Eerie (2018). In terms of directing, her debut was the short film Luna (2016) which was screened at the CineFilipino Film Festival while her debut feature, which she co-directed, Si Chedeng at Si Apple (2017), was screened at the Far East Film Festival and Kansai Queer Film Festival. The Girl with the Gun is her solo directorial debut and it displays a distinctive style that marks her out as a director of immense talent.

Easy to mistake as a humourless wokescold treatise on the nature of violence and gender relations, it puts us into the world of the titular girl which serves as a heightened depiction of the subjection of women to male behavior.

Barangay Tatalon in Quezon City is the place. The streets are lined with trash, smoke hangs in the air, and unsavory men prowl around, their eyes alive with lechery, mouths catcalling, while their bodies bristle with sex and violence, which the media they consume, on TV and in songs, conditions them to accept. There is an air of squalor, poverty and danger in the atmosphere. This is the environment that the girl (Janine Gutierrez), whom we never get a name for, has to wander through day and night to get to work. One there, the manager and customers harass her over her appearance, and when she finally gets home, her room-mate has an abusive boyfriend who crashes over. The girl’s face is riven with tiredness, disappointment and fear. She endures this every day.

We are very much aware that the girl is subject to the whims of men who perform every clichéd action in various sequences as they manspread, mansplain and manage to make the girl’s life harder in every conceivable way. Male dominance leaves her enduring financial hardship, period poverty and harassment and then, one day, she is assaulted. Humiliated and dejected, she is at her lowest ebb when she discovers a snub nosed pistol with a heart sticker discarded in the street following a shooting. A sudden transformation overtakes the girl. Fear morphs into righteous anger as the gun allows her to turn the tables and upset power structures. So we see her go through similar sequences to earlier in the film but now the men regard her with fear: the ones who treated her disrespectfully and hurt her now subject to experiencing with the same terror that she had to endure and the girl becomes like an avenging angel tackling the worst stereotypical masculine behavior. And then she can finally mete out justice to the man who assaulted her.

It would have been enough to have been a tongue-in-cheek revenge thriller where caricatured men are punished but the film switches from the girl’s storyline to the history of the gun, from its creation and use by agents of thee government against student activists in the 1980s before broadening out into a wider class-critique where the affects of violence are seen on young street kids who meet various, grisly fates. Its presence allows the story to naturally segue between characters as, by following the gun and who holds it, we get a glimpse of wider society. We see how the corrupting influence of its power affects characters as it allows them to upset gender roles and reshape or enforce the power structures prevalent in society, the rush of power and the feeling of emptiness after destruction. A second viewing is needed to discover just who ends up where and how they are all connected, but the storytelling cleverly creates an ecosystem of state-created and male-enforced violence which oppresses everyone regardless of sex.

The film is not subtle, or even entirely serious, and doesn’t intend to be. Excellent set-design and location choices really accentuate various themes. Many moments take place at night allowing the lighting to be moody as it flickers or is plunged into star colors due to the neon of surrounding electric signs and lamps. The jazz score bristles with cocky trumpets and persistent drumming that matches the ferocity of the Girl, who comes with a red cardigan like Little Red Riding Hood. Gutierrez is compelling as the main character as she morphs from frightened prey to avenging angel to a woman who has some balance. Her facial expressions and closed body language capture the look of a woman as a scared rabbit at first as she endures all of the difficulties mapped out by Red’s set-up. Yet she is totally different when letting the anger burst forth. It is liberating, amusing and a little scary as her voice rises, her features contort into various scowls and her body hums with barely constrained violence which, as the film shows effectively, is intoxicating and empowering, if ultimately bad.

With its stirring atmospherics and smart story that fleshes out the background for the gun and how it can change people, The Girl with the Gun is an effective pathology of violence that allows us to understand why it is addictive and what can go horribly wrong.

The Girl with the Gun was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 7 and will be shown again on March 11.