WARNING: This analysis has a few spoilers.
Filipinos face too much brutality that it feels as if we have already been desensitized by our society’s ills. But Birdshot reminds us of our true nature—one of innocence and idealism. Like the endangered Philippine eagle, this film is a rare breed of cinema that entertains yet opines, horrifies but gives hope.
This tragic parable perfectly weaves two distinct narratives—one of 14-year-old Maya (played by newcomer Mary Joy Apostol), a motherless farm girl who ignorantly kills a protected Haribon (Philippine eagle); while the other is of a rookie cop named Domingo (Arnold Reyes), who investigates a case of a missing bus full of farmers. When Domingo is forced into a manhunt of the Haribon’s poacher, the two characters collide, bringing together a haunting and intriguing tale of suspense.
24-year-old director Mikhail Red said in previous interviews that he was inspired to do the film after reading a news article about a farmer who shot, killed and ate a Philippine eagle and was jailed for it.
The farmers who died while fighting for their rights in the “Hacienda” is a reference to the Hacienda Luisita massacre, while the powerful last scene is loosely inspired by the Ampatuan massacre.
Rich with Elements
There is so much to see, and moviegoers are encouraged to look beyond the powerful plot. The film is rich with metaphor that could either mean one or the other, parallels that make us question our preconceived beliefs.
Look at the farm’s scarecrow—it’s a clear totem of death and fear, but it also holds a symbol of hope and prosperity. Look at the snake—it could mean temptation or evil, but it could also mean rebirth and transformation. Look at the two dead dogs, and listen to how Domingo was called a “tuta” or puppy—they could either signify a looming death, or they could also represent the breakdown of our instincts. Look at the color red—it may be a sign of danger and violence, but it can also be of love and adventure. With these symbols in mind, you know that the filmmaker paid a huge amount of attention to detail, making sure that every aspect of the film’s design has a purpose.
It is also refreshing that the film not only identifies itself as a mystery thriller—a genre hard to come by in Philippine cinema—but it also mixes elements of magical realism, with the presence of a ghostly image of a farmer in red.
The film supposedly happened before the 1990s, shown with the old rotary dial telephones and the brown police uniforms that bear the name “INP FIELD FORCE” (Integrated Police Force), a predecessor of today’s Philippine National Police (PNP). While the production design complements well with the film’s narrative, a closer look at the mise-en-scene will show a minor mistake: in one scene at the police station, the camera pans to Domingo and reveals a huge PNP logo behind him. Take note that the PNP was only formed after the Philippine Constabulary (PC) and Integrated Police Force (INP) were disbanded in 1991.
Not Your Usual Characters
Unlike a soap opera where there are clear villains, we are introduced to characters who are not necessarily evil but are actually victims of their own circumstances. Maya may be a criminal for killing a Haribon, but she is a victim of ignorance. Her father, Diego (Manuel Aquino), may be a fugitive for escaping prison and a murderer after killing a policeman, but he is otherwise a victim of a botched investigation.
Domingo may have turned from good cop to bad cop, but he is clearly a victim of his corrupt institution. And you may hate Mendoza (John Arcilla) for molding Domingo into his likeness, but like his rookie partner, he was also once just like Domingo.
They all question our view of morality, illustrating to us how humanity continues to struggle with each one’s version of what is right; how our circumstances force us to violate our own principles.
There are several references as well to other social realities we face. The grandmother tells Maya to comb her hair a hundred times every night, suggesting that if she is beautiful, she doesn’t need to search for food because someone will feed her. It is a clear feminist play, reminding us that despite our nation’s victories to champion women’s rights, there remains a movement to maintain machismo and gender inequality.
As the police chief gets confused if the Haribon is the national animal or national bird, it says a lot about our indecisiveness, or in greater terms, the lack if not absence of national identity.
There’s also the protected reserve’s caretaker whose short dialogue describing how illegal loggers and poachers have ruined our forests is a clear critique of our environmental decay. All these issues are like ammunition scattered throughout the film, telling us that Birdshot is not just a film about the loss and corruption of innocence.
Soaring High to Oscars 2018
Mikhail Red has a vision for Birdshot, and he has definitely succeeded in sending the message across to the viewers—that truth and justice in this country is endangered, not just our national bird and symbol.But it tells us so much more, and if you miss these small details, you forget to enjoy the magnificent poetry behind this film.
Indeed, Birdshot has all the elements that make it the best Filipino film of 2017. Cineastes have already given it a standing ovation when it was screened as the opening film for Cinemalaya 2017. Others are still watching it at extended screenings across the country. And just awhile ago, it has been chosen as the Philippines’ entry to Foreign Language Film category of the 2018 Oscars.
But like the endangered Philippine eagle, films like this are still rare and hard to find in local cinemas. One can only hope that more filmmakers like Mikhail Red will emerge and bring more essence and diversity to our staple of local movies.
[Entry 243, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author:
JM Nualla is the Social Media Head of SubSelfie.com. He is presently a Producer of The Source on CNN Philippines. He also serves as an Assistant Professor in iACADEMY, teaching scripwriting, film language and mentoring thesis projects. Previously, he was a Segment Producer for the GMA News Special Assignments Team and Senior Producer/Online Content Manager for Claire Delfin Media. Beyond his career, JM is a follower of Jesus, a frustrated mountaineer/traveler/adventurer, and a hopeful romantic. Broadcast Communication 2009, PUP Manila. MA Journalism 2014, Ateneo de Manila. Read more of his articles here.