A girl is set on a collision course with cops investigating a mass-disappearance after shooting an endangered eagle on her father’s farm…
The shockingly young Filipino director Mikhail Red (born in 1991) follows up his award-winning debut Rekorder with Birdshot, a rural-set dramatic thriller revolving around the killing of humans and endangered animals alike. Co-written by Rae Red, the film was a Philippines-Qatar co-production, and screened at the 2017 Osaka Asian Film Festival.
The film begins with Maya (Mary Joy Apostol, making her debut), a young girl who lives on a farm near a forest nature reserve in the Philippines, being taught to hunt by her father Diego (Manuel Aquino, Kubot: The Aswang Chronicles 2), after which she unwittingly shoots an endangered eagle. Chief Officer Mendoza (John Arcilla, Metro Manila) is assigned to investigate, along with idealistic rookie Domingo (Arnold Reyes, Graceland), and they slowly close in on May and Diego. At the same time, the two officers try to get to the bottom of the disappearance of a busload of workers, which sees them getting caught up in a dark conspiracy.
Birdshot is an incredibly mature and assured piece of cinema, made all the impressive by Mikhail Red’s young age and the fact that this is only his second feature. It’s a great example of patient storytelling, switching skilfully between the stories of Maya and Diego and the two cops in a way which subtly builds tension, it being clear that their paths will eventually cross, most likely in violent fashion. There’s a slow-burn feeling of dread throughout, and even though the film is predictable in that it’s never likely to end well and in terms of its police procedural elements, there are plenty of suspenseful developments along the way, all of which are grounded and believable. The film is gripping despite its long running time, which is peppered with uneventful stretches, and benefits from some genuinely interesting and engaging characters and uniformly great performances from the cast, who get across complex motivations and psychologies without much dialogue.
The film is also thematically rich, and although the use of the endangered eagle might have been a hackneyed metaphor in other hands, Red here uses it well to illustrate the value placed on human life – while film is dead serious, there’s an absurd irony in the way the police are mobilised to try and find its killers instead of tracking down a busload of missing people. There are links and parallels drawn between animals and humans throughout, and the script revolves around the shifting relationships between predators and their prey. It’s a dark film in this respect and one which takes place very much in a moral grey area, with no judgement of its characters and no clear-cut heroes or villains, from Maya mistakenly shooting the eagle through to Domingo’s increasing violence. The film is grimly humanistic, its characters driven by a fully understandable desire to survive and by essentially decent motivations, and this gives it a very powerful emotional punch as it builds towards its inevitably downbeat ending.
Visually Birdshot is similarly very impressive indeed cinematographer Mycko David doing a fantastic job of capturing the rural Filipino scenery in an atmospheric and often stunning manner. The forests, mountains and fields give the film an almost primal feel and a sense of vastness, underlining its themes and adding a fitting dash of savagery. While slow moving, with lots of long and lingering shots, the film has a good few set pieces and violent sequences, adding a few thrills and an air of lurking threat.
Birdshot is easily one of the best Filipino films of the last year, and an amazing achievement for a young director like Mikhail Red, who is surely destined for great things. Taught, haunting and dark in a rewardingly contemplative fashion, it’s a film well-worth catching on the big screen if possible, and which will hopefully find a wider audience at international festivals.