Fast-rising Philippines-based director Mikhail Red has gained a dedicated following after delivering a succession of powerful films in just a few years.
In addition to establishing Red on the festival circuit – he has been consistently programmed by the Tokyo International Film Festival – his pictures have been acquired by Netflix. And Red is filming part of HBO series “Halfworlds.”
The title of his latest effort is taken from the name of a WWII-era Japanese bolt-action rifle. And while the narrative of “Arisaka” is more contemporary, the references to the brutal past are clear enough. The protagonist, a woman police officer is on the run and escapes capture by straying into the wilderness that was the scene of the infamous Bataan Death March. In Red’s thinking, history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.
But “Arisaka” nearly didn’t happen, as the production was hit by COVID and natural disasters.
Variety: Explain how you nearly got blown off course?
Red: “It was a 2020 shoot, and we were one of the first Filipino feature film productions that tried to do everything in the middle of the pandemic. So we were constantly adjusting to all the new guidelines and protocols.
“The typhoons that hit us in October and November 2020 were powerful ones that made international headlines. But it was too for us to turn back as we were on location when that happened.
“The tough thing with this film is that it is a very short, simple story that happens over just a couple of days. All this varying weather was a challenge to maintain continuity. We’d shoot for three days action that would take place over a few minutes.”
How do you describe and present the picture?
“I describe it as a Western. Also, as a survival thriller. It follows the perspective of a policewoman who is the survivor of an ambush. She is being chased by other police and has to hide in the Bataan wilderness. This is the same area where the [WWII] Death March took place and where a lot of prisoners of war tried to escape their Japanese captors. They would hide in the forest and sometimes they would never make it out. To this day relics and remains are still being found in these forests.
“My story is set in the present day, but there are certain elements in the film that parallel that part of history. Only this time we have more local antagonists. There are present and past together.
“It is not as heavy in dialog as my other films, and it is more straightforward. And there are some genre elements, since it is a thriller. There are action sequences, but (overall) it is a very quiet somber film. With a lot of contemplative moments. We are always in the psyche of this one character and because she is struggling to survive in this hostile environment and there is not a lot of people to talk to.”
Is this an anti-Japanese film? How is it in competition in Tokyo?
“It is not anti-Japanese. It is more anti-oppressors. And there is that parallel of being chased by people. To say more would be a spoiler, but the protagonist starts to understand what the Filipino soldiers had to go through to survive the authorities when they were prisoners of war (during WWII).
“There is also an element of indigenous people of Bataan which we shot with the real Aeta community. And there were a lot of non-professional actors. That is one thing I’m hoping will surprise audiences. We have a very powerful first-time performance from a woman of the Aeta community.
“This time the Filipino authorities are the modern-day invaders. The Aeta have been struggling with their land ever since, they’ve witnessed war and now things are happening over again.”
When is “Arisaka” set?
“We don’t specify. I always like to set films somewhere in the mid-2000s, when I do thrillers, for narrative purposes. In times where you don’t have cell phones and internet connections out in the remote areas. That’s also why ‘Birdshot’ was set in the early 1990s.
“It is also loosely based on a news event where there was a police rub out [execution]. The Atimonan Massacre in 2013. It happens a lot [in The Philippines] that there are two opposing police entities; they have to do a rub out where they wipe out another group because it is getting too much or they interfere with a deal gone bad.”
What are the plans for sales and distribution?
“Raven Banner in Toronto is handling sales and we hope to be able to announce a North American distribution later for 2022 in November. But we will also continue to go through the festival route, and submit for a few more festivals early next year.
“With theaters here only opening slowly – I think The Philippines is one of the last countries to reopen cinemas – it is going to take a while before this film gets to the big screen. All the first few films in theaters are (delayed) Hollywood superhero movies and other Hollywood titles.
“Entry into Japan from The Philippines is still restricted, so I wasn’t able to attend. It is sad as I’ve been attending Tokyo ever since my first film “Rekorder.” “Birdshot” won in the Asian Future section. Now I’ve made enough films to be considered for main competition, but COVID happened. I’m still honored and excited that the film was selected.
“Tokyo has always been supportive of my works. But, we still might get a theatrical release in Japan, after the festival run.
“For the future, I’m working with the same production company TEN17P. They greenlit ‘Arisaka’ before the pandemic. But they still continued with it and had to learn the ropes about bringing COVID protocols into production. The company is very director driven. And by next year we may be working again on another film called ‘Final Rites’.”