Of Gunslingers, Magic Realism: Birdshot (2016)

In an interview with director Mikhail Red, he explains that there’s a Western theme to the film. I’m not sure what Westerns the young director has already seen, but most of the time, the film does feel like a Western. Just as Sam Peckinpah brought the violence and chaos of the West to the English countryside in ‘’Straw Dogs,’’ Mikhail Red does the same and brings this very violence to the Philippine countryside to create a violent coming-of-age thriller and a hard-hitting social commentary.

Maya (Mary Joy Apostol) is a teenage girl who lives with her father Diego, in a piece of land right next to an eagle sanctuary. Diego teaches his daughter how to use a gun, among other things, so that she can be self-sufficient. After failing her first shooting lesson, Maya, perhaps eager to prove herself, enters the sanctuary and unwittingly kills a Philippine Eagle. A rookie cop, Domingo (Arnold Reyes) begins his career by investigating a bus that mysteriously disappeared while on its way to Manila. Told by higher-ups to forget about the case of the bus and focus on the eagle case. Domingo, together with his superior, Mendoza (John Arcilla), would eventually cross paths with Maya and her father. And then, chaos.

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‘’Birdshot’’ tackles a lot of social ills that plague today’s Philippines. As director Mikhail Red confirmed himself, the bus is a commentary on the Maguindanao massacre of 2009. Just like the dozens of people who were massacred in Maguindanao during that fateful day in 2009, the passengers in the film’s bus would find no justice, as well. There is no justice in this God-forsaken land. And just like Domingo, who was hell-bent on pursuing the case of the bus, you either die before finding the justice you seek or end up being consumed by a corrupt system that favors the rich and those in power.

Using the killing of the Philippine Eagle as a jump-off point, the film binds together such issues as police brutality and corruption, kaingin, summary executions, an unfair justice system, and more into one smartly-written narrative that says a lot about Philippine society as a whole.

but looking at another angle, The fact that Maya (a small bird) manages to kill an eagle (a bird of prey) speaks truth to power: that the masses can kill the giants of injustice and oppression.

Perhaps it would be fair to say that the film would be something else—perhaps something less, if not for its visuals. And there’s Mycko David’s camerawork to thank for that, along with the earthy colors and disturbing hues of red. The wide-angle shots are just gorgeous. I remembered the Westerns in these shots. Westerns would feature a lot of beautiful wide-angle shots to highlight the gorgeous scenery. The beauty of nature is there to mask the violence that goes on in the world of men. Although there’s not a lot of scenery when it comes to corn fields, the corn fields make the film feel alien, different, and distant.

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We’re used to seeing rice paddies and maybe banana plantations in Philippine cinema, but cornfields, not so much. The fact that the place is unnamed gives the film a different feel from your usual Filipino film. The mysterious ghostly figure is also a nice touch of magic realism. It feels as if whatever is happening in ‘’Birdshot’’ could be happening anywhere in the Philippines, all the more because we are a superstitious people.

If there’s one thing that this film is good at, it’s building tension. I’m sure Hitchcock would be pleased. Mikhail Red really knows how to make use of visuals and sounds to keep you on your toes. My description would do the film no justice.

Film is visual stimulation and you won’t be feeling the tension and suspense just by reading this. You’ll probably leave the theater feeling a bit tired from being tense all the time. I’m pretty sure that’s how I felt.

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The spirit of the Western is strong in this film. The final shootout reminds me of John Ford’s ‘’Stagecoach’’ (1939). Mikhail Red really used his knowledge of the Western as a genre to good use. In the mythical West, there is only one way to settle things—and that is through violence.

The world where Maya lives in is in many ways similar to the world of gunslingers and outlaws, where violence is the law.

But Maya is not the mythical gunslinger of the west. She is hope personified. Whereas Domingo succumbed to corruption and savagery, Maya chose a different path, reminiscent of the victory of civilization over savagery in Western films. What makes Maya better than any gunslinger is that she achieved all this, without the body count of Clint Eastwood’s gunslingers.



Image: TBA Studios

Martin, aka “The Earl”, has a graduate degree in Japan Studies from the University of the Philippines. He’s an Arctic Monkeys fan, knows his whiskey, and his films. For more of his reviews, visit his page at https://letterboxd.com/mat914/.


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