Birdshot is ... Brilliant

Birdshot (2016)

Rated NR: This film currently has no rating

Running Time: 116 minutes (1 hour and 56 minutes)

Genre/s: Coming-of-Age, Crime, Drama, Thriller

Released on October 28, 2016 (JP Release Date; Available for Worldwide Viewing)

Presented by PelikulaRED, Tuko Film Productions, Bucchi Boy Films, and CJ Entertainment

Director: Mikhail Red

Writers: Mikhail Red and Rae Red

  • Mary Joy Apostol as Maya Mariano
  • Arnold Reyes as Domingo
  • John Arcilla as Mendoza
  • Ku Aquino as Diego Mariano

"We are never truly free". Birds are meant to fly, and us humans are destined to be free as well. However, much like the birds also, we are all, in the end, meant to die. I have heard nothing but positive things about this film, and after finally getting to view it, I finally understood why many fondly look at this flick. Birdshot presents a very nihilistic, a very heavy-handed message in such a way that not many would immediately understand, but would leave viewers thinking as soon as the end credits rolled.

In this movie, a young woman named Maya Mariano, played by Apostol in her film debut, becomes entangled in a web of wicked lies and deceit when she goes against the pleas of her father Diego, played by Aquino (Mga Anino ng Kahapon) to avoid entering a nearby bird sanctuary. Police officers Domingo, played by Reyes (Astig), and Mendoza, played by Arcilla (Heneral Luna) are later tasked to investigate the identity of the trespasser, and instead of finding the culprit, they find something that is much more evil in the shadows.

As I have said before, the film is able to present a thought-provoking message that is never directly stated in the context of the film, but is nevertheless delivered with exceptional subtlety and depth. The basic story revolves around Maya, an initially free character being trained by her father to become more independent, killing a Philippine Eagle, an endangered species. This action results in her losing her freedom when the police becomes involved. With an amazing performance by Apostol, we see a simple, innocent person forced to become involved in the much more sinister corner of the modern world, who just so happens to be unaware of what lies beyond the border, and who just so happens to murder an animal that she has almost no clue about its conditions. We understand that she did not know any better, and that she is only a youngster.

New officer Domingo cares about two things: his family, and his plants. Reyes delivers a simple yet effective portrayal of a man who is good at heart, but is also a man tragically conflicted by forces who refuse to give him freedom. When a case involving the disappearance of an entire bus load of passengers catches Domingo's attention, he finds it in himself to go against orders to investigate himself, but he eventually succumbs to the darkness with some convincing from the ever-reliable presence of actor John Arcilla as Reyes's character's on-screen superior, Mendoza. Unlike his corrupt colleagues though, Reyes only gave-in when his family is personally threatened, but this does not ultimately signify that there is no hope for Domingo.

We also note the presence of two mentor figures in both Mendoza and Diego Mariano. While Aquino's Diego, whom the actor portrayed with equally sympathetic light, does everything in his power to keep Maya away from the darkness, Arcilla's Mendoza, who has given-up at escaping from the evil there, sways Domingo to surrender and submit. We see that two forces contrast here. One attempting to keep his daughter safe, and another who persuades someone else to embrace it. Even without strict exhibition, the character establishing moment of Mendoza threatening one illegal logger, who is part of a group that bribes the police to do their illicit business, and his succeeding talk about him being somewhat a "psychopath" cements that he is a character who already accepts losing his freedom.

The frequent and very subtle use of symbolism is very good here, as the application only cements the beauty of the narrative's central theme of innocence. Instead of seeing a quiet and pleasant atmosphere, the rural setting, of the Philippines, which I believe is a perfect shooting location for the movie is far from the ideal landscape. While yes, the area is indeed much more bearable than that of the setting that one would have if an individual prefers to live in the city, we see that even the purest of lands can be tainted by corruption. Untrustworthy officials in law-enforcement stalk the green fields, and terrifying legends of spirits roaming at night, in addition to poverty, are what you could expect from this place. The cinematography and camera works reflect this even, in that the frank yet telling establishing shots of sunsets and sunrises showcases a forthcoming moment of realization, and the eye-catching greenery help emphasize the innocence that lies in nature.

If one keeps a close eye, the film makes use of the color red very often. That is a fact that I never really noticed until I read an article about it most recently. We see Maya's red scarf, a torn red polo shirt that Domingo retrieved right next to the recently discovered bus, the blood on the animals that are all killed in the movie, the mysterious "spirit" that follows Maya wherever she walks, Maya's menstrual blood stains on her bed. They all symbolize a specific moment when a character begins to notice that is something is not right about their environment, and that each of them begin to realize that their initially pleasant existences would not last long.

In addition to the symbolism, the movie makes effective use of references to real-life incidents. The scene when both Domingo and Mendoza discover the abandoned bus showcases this. The two tragic occurrences that I pictured are the infamous Maguindanao Massacre, which involved the abominable deaths of several journalists at the discovery of a potential government scandal, and the heinous Hacienda Luisita Massacre, where police officers opened fire on hardworking farmers crying-out for their rights of ownership on their respective lands to be recognized. Both heartbreaking true stories reflect the film's theme of determinism, in that you will meet disturbing deaths when given the chances to fight for the greater good. Like the farmers who fought for their land, their only true freedom lies in the afterlife. The current condition of the Philippine Eagles also represent this, as only a few of them remain, and their freedom is threatened constantly by people.

In the end, even with the negative implications of the main message of the film, we get to see a few glimpses of hope. When Diego is arrested for being the prime suspect in the eagle case, he becomes a volunteer in a small prison break where he watches all of his fellow convicts executed by both Domingo and Mendoza. With almost no hope in sight, Diego decides to shoot Domingo and kill Mendoza to ensure Maya's freedom, costing his life in the process. Although Maya loses her father, her ever-reliable source of guidance, her trusty dog "Bala", and technically what is left of her initially quiet life in the farmlands, Maya refuses to give-in to the dark side, and she spares Domingo's life by allowing him to drive back home.

As Domingo cries in regret at his past actions, from shooting Maya's dog, to personally beating-up Diego in the police basement, to ignoring the plea of a mother to search for her missing son, a bus passenger, the last shot of the film shows Maya looking at the dead bodies of the bus passengers, with eagles flying over them. The audiences are then left with a more positive take on the original message, in that though we may not be free physically, but we can be free in spiritual terms by accepting the dark and dirty nature that surrounds us. I do believe that this last scene perfectly captured the essence of the story, showcasing that Maya, like the eagles soaring above, is now free after learning and accepting the disturbing truths.

Though the film satisfyingly delivers the message, there is actually no closure for the subplot involving the disappearances of the bus passengers, a few of whom are revealed to be heading for Manila in order to appeal their land-related case to court. The very last mention of it prior to the end is when Domingo's plants are burned and his house is trespassed by an unknown assailant, who threatens him to drop the investigation. As much as I would want the film to delve deeper into that mystery aspect, I believe that it would ruin the character-driven factor of the movie, and I believe that the fact that the movie focuses heavily on character development is what makes it brilliant. The film is sluggish in some scenes, to be honest, notably in the opening sequences, there are cliche moments, such as police corruption, and the threats of a higher power, and characters such as Mendoza are not given enough development, but there is definitely enough subversion to keep this movie from being unoriginal and lackluster.

Overall, despite the very minor flaws such as pacing, Birdshot is elevated by a tightly focused narrative on the loss of innocence, carefully-constructed and aesthetically-presented cinematography, amazing acting from the main actors and actress. I believe that the film did more than just present a crime drama, in that it also presented an artistically complex tale with a sense of nihilism that leaves an impactful message for audiences everywhere. Watch for the mystery at hand. Stay for the artistry within. I will give this movie a rating of 21/25 (Awesome!)

Although our nation's cinema usually gets flak either for its unprecedented appeal to mainstream audiences, for the stale and heavily commercialized forms of storytelling, for frequently inconsistent movie quality, or both, the independent filmmaking scene offers a lot of gems, with Birdshot being among them. Since Netflix shows not only Western shows and films, I highly encourage everyone to take a look at other nations' works, including some of our best. To this end, we will be reviewing a whole lot more Filipino movies.

Christmas is here, and for the movie-making industry of our country, that means only one other thing besides the birth of our Lord and Savior. The annual "Metro Manila Film Festival" is here, and honestly speaking, I am not all that interested in this year's line-up. However, you could check them out for yourself. Below are trailers for three entries for the festival: One Great Love, Rainbow's Sunset, and The Girl in the Orange Dress. These three trailers did leave a small impression on me, although there are times when they feel quite cliched, so here is to hoping that they really are very good. Stay tuned for more Dateline Movies!


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