Tenderness and brutality exist side-by-side in “Birdshot,” the impressive second feature by young Filipino filmmaker Mikhail Red (“Rekorder”). Intertwining the stories of a farm girl who unwittingly kills a protected bird and an idealistic rookie cop who succumbs to corruption during a missing persons investigation, Red delivers a compelling study in the loss of innocence while also offering potent commentary on the state of things in the Philippines. Still enjoying a successful festival run that began with the Best Asian Future award at Tokyo, “Birdshot” opens domestically on Aug. 16 and is well worth the attention of distributors elsewhere.
In a refreshing change from city-based tales of corruption that are a fixture of Filipino cinema, “Birdshot” unfolds in lush countryside surrounding a sanctuary for the haribon (Philippine eagle). Since being declared the national bird in 1995, this species has become critically endangered by the deforestation of its natural habitats. Killing a haribon is punishable by lengthy prison terms and hefty fines.
Diego Mariano (Manuel Acquino) works as caretaker of the land around the sanctuary, and is also the widowed father of 14-year-old Maya (Mary Joy Apostol), a sensitive girl who’s just experienced her first period and whose mother died in childbirth. The girl tells her father she wants to see the world beyond their isolated shack, but in the meantime, Diego wants Maya to become self-sufficient should anything happen to him. After fumbling her first shooting lesson, Maya takes Diego’s rifle into the sanctuary and mistakenly kills a haribon.
Also entering new and dangerous territory is Domingo (Arnold Reyes, “Graceland”), a rookie cop and proud new father who’s just arrived in the area. While investigating the disappearance of a busload of farmers en route to Manila with grievances about unfair treatment, Domingo is ordered to drop the case. According to his cynical partner Mendoza (John Arcilla, “Heneral Luna”) and their fearsome local commander, de la Paz (Dido de la Paz), all that matters now is finding the haribon’s killer.
Using the missing persons case to draw parallels with the still-unresolved Maguindanao bus massacre of 2009, Red and co-writer Rae Red (also his cousin) leave no doubt that Domingo’s orders are politically motivated and involve high-level corruption. In this outpost where malfeasance is endemic, it means authorities have deemed the life of an animal to be worth more than the lives of humans. As Mendoza tells Domingo, “These are the cases we solve here.”
Following threats to the safety of his unnamed wife (Elora Espano) and ominous stares from fellow officers, Domingo buckles dramatically. As if to leave no doubt he’s now on the same page as everyone else, he commits sickening acts of violence upon Diego when the latter is brought in for questioning and eventually winds up in a cell with detainees planning a breakout. The question of whether Domingo is feigning compliance and will ultimately emerge as a hero is cleverly left open until deep into the drama.
The brutality around Domingo is in stark contrast to elegantly composed sequences that show Maya sensing danger and retreating into the forest at night when her father fails to return. At various moments, Maya is watched by figures wearing robes and masks, as if they might be spirits observing her passage to womanhood and guiding her to the world beyond this isolated backwoods. These enriching excursions into magic realism are beautifully composed and expertly edited into the narrative.
Filmed in earthy tones with splashes of red in significant items of clothing and set decoration, “Birdshot” is wonderfully well directed and performed. Impressive newcomer Apostol has a magnetic screen presence and holds her own in the company of reliable pros Reyes and Arcilla. Haunting soundscapes by composer Teresa Barozzo, a frequent collaborator of Brillante Mendoza, rounds out the film’s classy technical presentation.