In November 2016, "Birdshot," a film by 24-year old director Mikhail Red, won Best Picture at the Asian Future Film Competition of the 29th Tokyo International Film Festival where "Die Beautiful" won its Audience Choice and Best Actor. It was also the opening film of this year's Cinemalaya Filmfest. It finally gets its commercial run as part of the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino.
In a dusty unnamed rural town, two crimes have been committed. First, there was a bus en route that mysteriously disappeared along with all the passengers on board. Second, an endangered haribon (Philippine Eagle) was shot and killed. As their work on the first case seemed to be leading nowhere, senior police officer Mendoza and his new partner Domingo were also dispatched to investigate a cornfield caretaker Diego Mariano and his 14-year old daughter Maya, suspects of the second case.
This film did not hide its sentiments about the police. Arnold Reyes convincingly played the rookie Domingo, who devolved from a happy family with a garden of orchids into a heartless brutal executioner within the course of this film. It could have been rather abrupt, but Reyes' tortured transformation was disturbing to watch unfold. John Arcilla can play shady characters like Mendoza blindfolded. His sneer, his voice, chilling to the core. Dido dela Paz only had one scene as their chief of police, but he was downright fearsome and sinister.
Veteran character actor Ku Aquino and newcomer Mary Joy Apostol played the father and daughter caught up in the wave of violence. Diego was a tragic father figure, willing to take the fall for his daughter, and grizzled Aquino bravely took all his blows. Maya came of age in the most harrowing circumstances, and Apostol took the bull by the horns in her feature film debut, using her open innocent face to its full advantage.
On the negative side, I thought it was very odd how a father, jaded as he was, never told his daughter directly that it was illegal to shoot down a haribon despite having the eagle sanctuary right next door to their farm all those years. This was a rather shaky key plot point upon which the whole film stood with instability.
This was a film that comments on current Filipino society where police brutality is committed with seeming impunity. It shows how the spirit and morality of even the most upright man or idealistic youth can so easily be broken and corrupted by fear and insecurity. Common themes of several local indie films for sure, but this one was told in a novel style. While the chance encounter may have felt forced, the final scene of the whole film may have been hauntingly shot as a tableau of victimhood.
From an opening scene showing Diego teaching his daughter Maya how to shoot ducks with a shotgun, you already knew that "Birdshot" was going to be about violence and its hold on people. With grand visuals by cinematographer Mycko David and an unsettling pace set by writer and director Mikhail Red, violence (to both men and beasts) would pervade and consume the rest of this film up to the end, taking us, its riveted captive audience, along on its heart-stopping and heart-breaking ride. 8/10
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."