TL;DR This “coming-of-age” thriller can be slow & awkward at times, but this is a movie that lives up to its moniker. Definitely one of the best Filipino movies of 2017.
Birdshot is one of the more atypical entries in Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017. It is billed as a “coming-of-age thriller” & it mostly delivers on that promise. It is a unique movie that combines two genres seemingly at odds with each other, yet it comes out fully-formed, creating an unforgettable experience.
It tells the tale of Maya (Mary Joy Apostol in her debut role), a young girl taken care of by her father Diego (Ku Aquino). They are poor & surrounded by fields of wheat, since they live on a land his father is taking care of. Diego wants his daughter to learn how to hunt so she could take care of herself when he’s gone. Maya unwittingly enters a sanctuary for the endangered Philippine eagle – Philippines’ national bird & the rarest eagle in existence – and decides to shoot one for practice. Her father isn’t happy about what she did, since killing one is a criminal offense. Now they both have to hide the crime to the police & try to keep their family intact.
It is also about Domingo (Arnold Reyes), an idealistic rookie cop with a strict moral conduct working hard for his family. He is partnered with Mendoza (John Arcilla), a corrupt cop who knows his way around the crooked system he works for. Both of them are investigating a missing persons case involving a group of passengers departing to Manila. Domingo is intent on solving the case, but is forced to drop it in order to solve the disappearance of a missing Philippine eagle. Mendoza wants him to focus on the new case, but Domingo wouldn’t listen, especially once he finds out that the passengers include a group of farmers who are going to reclaim a land that is rightfully theirs.
These two stories dovetail to create a tale of corruption, conspiracy & survival in a world where institutions created to help everyone are controlled by the rich & powerful, leaving those who are defenseless to fend off for themselves. The result is a society built on a cruel food chain, where the weakest are left behind to suffer or worse.
And this is the world Maya & Domingo where they will undergo a rite of passage, forcing them to chose between doing the right thing or staying alive. The genre mashup takes a while to gel together, since it takes up lots of time to setting up its milieu. It doesn’t help the movie focuses too much on the “thriller” aspect of the story, which means there aren’t as many character interactions that would’ve made the movie land harder than it should’ve.
That coldness even shows in the performances, which comes off as stiff at times, but the cast rises above it. Mary Joy Apostol is outstanding as a young girl forced to fight back for her survival. Ku Aquino is great as Maya’s stern & protective father who tries his best to shield her daughter in the world they live in. Arnold Reyes portrays Domingo as a man going through huge lengths to maintain his ideals & realizing it will cost him dearly. John Arcilla is often hilarious as a cop who’s finally settled into his role in this brutal ecosystem.
And yet, it pays off immensely in the 2nd half, where the two plots entangle further & the boiling tension ratchets up until it is unleashed to the audience. This is only Mikhail Red’s 2nd film & it fulfills the promise he showed in his debut Rekorder. Fusing the tale of a young girl growing into a woman & a rookie cop who’s way out of his league within the framework of a thriller is pure genius. He exhibits a total control of mood & expertise in the technical aspects of filmmaking & it shows on every frame of the film.
It helps that he’s backed by the great cinematographer Mycko David. Birdshot is filled of beautiful images, mostly isolating the characters in environments that engulf them completely, or using close-ups to trap them in the situation they currently in. The best examples of this often occur at night, where people would be swallowed by the darkness if not for a few sources of light available to them or shadows cast across their faces; emphasizing how they are a breath away from being subsumed by forces beyond their control.
That is a feeling familiar to most Filipinos & Birdshot captures it fully. It may not be totally successful, but the results are captivating & exhilarating, while emphasizing the cruel reality at its center.