You know a movie is more than a fleeting form of entertainment when there are so many aspects and layers that come to the surface as you think about it over the course of a night or a day or even several days. Birdshot is one such film.
It is beautiful in its parallelisms and symbolisms and also, interestingly, because at the core, it is simple.
Birdshot is about coming of age and the loss of innocence. While venturing deep in the mountains, fifteen-year-old Maya (Mary Joy Apostol) unknowingly kills an endangered Philippine eagle. This prompts authorities to start a manhunt to find the eagle killer. Forced to hide in the forest to elude the police (played by John Arcilla and Arnold Reyes), Maya hears the call of an eagle. She follows its call to a place where a grim secret unravels.
The film starts with Maya staring down the barrel of a shotgun getting ready to fire at the prodding of her father, Diego (Ku Aquino). The movie will come full circle to a very similar scene and the emotions are mirrored but also amplified.
Two main characters, Maya and Domingo (Arnold Reyes) have different but parallel lives, navigating the mire between innocence and “knowing.” No one in the film is completely innocent or guilty, no one is just good or just bad—there are many gray areas that the characters inhabit and traipse around. Much like real life.
Mikhail and Rae Red’s screenplay unravels slowly, like a ball of yarn in the paws of a kitten. The young writers use dramatic irony skillfully—the audience is excited at what happens onscreen, even as some characters do not see what we see. Perception is also called into question as what seem like spirits (very magic realism) come out from the shadows but only from the corner of the eye or pass by for a fleeting moment—so that you question whether there was indeed something there or if your eyes, or mind, or both are merely playing tricks on you.
Maya also seems like the bird whose name she shares, small and fragile and agile—but minuscule compared to the mighty and majestic Philippine eagle. That is, Maya without a gun. With a gun, she is empowered by the bullet. She is also growing up from a small girl to a lady, her monthly period is only one of many rites of passage she must deal with.
Domingo, a rookie cop with a wife and a baby, starts out zealous—maybe even overly so—as he tackles a case that everyone is trying to derail him from. Still, he pursues it, in pursuit of truth and at peril to his own life. But blood also gets in his hands as he struggles in the crevice between idealism and realism—or survival, as the case may be.
The story is not all somber. There are moments in the movie that provide the audience a chuckle or more.
John Arcilla is effervescent as Captain Mendoza, Domingo’s superior, who has the face and stance of an officer weathered by time and experience—and knowing too much. Arcilla plays the officer with compassion and passion. There are many comparisons that can be drawn between his role here and in the British film Metro Manila, yet he does not deliver the same performances. Captain Mendoza is loud and gruff, but he also reveals a vulnerability that was there once upon a time, and that is mirrored in Domingo.
Aquino shows both courage as a father protecting his only child and preparing her for the world, and softness as he tries to be both father and mother to her. In his quiet moments, his face registers several emotions, even when he tries to look stoic.
Mycko David’s cinematography makes the sand golden and the trees deep emerald, the sky blue with all the ranges of colors that occur naturally. David’s shots, combined with Jay Halili and Mikhail Red’s editing, contribute to increasing the suspense in the scenes. There is enough breathing room between them—so that each thrilling sequence is executed to full effect.
There is something so timeless about Birdshot. Not only are the issues relevant today but the general quality of mise-en-scene resist being “dated.” Again, the characters contribute to this timelessness and even placelessness, to coin a term.
The stories unfold in the Philippines—but they are portrayed so much so that they could happen anywhere in the countryside.
Mikhail Red is a skillful director who has crafted a story that is at once a surprise but vaguely familiar. The final scene will make audiences gasp then come to a grim realization. And the last shot is powerful bereft of any dialogue.
It won the Asia Future Best Film Award at the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival.
Birdshot is part of Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino of the Film Development Council of the Philippines. It is being shown nationwide from August 16-22, 2017.
Ed's Note: The "PEP Review" section carries the views of individual reviewers, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the PEP editorial staff.