Birdshot: Philippine contender to the Oscar foreign-language film category feels like an American Western

The film opens during sunrise, and we are presented with the Philippine country side, landscape upon landscape of green earth, god-lights peaking between clouds, and mountain silhouettes so majestic they look like paintings. The sound too felt regal, just the chirping of birds or rustle of wind passing through leaves and tall grass. It’s the stillness of morning where everyone is about to wake up.

Flowing stream, again tranquil, and then we see man and teenage girl. She’s holding a shot-gun, pointing at ducks on water. He’s teaching her. “Deep breath, don’t move too much. Breathe at the same time as your target. One breath before you pull the trigger and his last breath before he dies.” It’s a genius opening line. We find ourselves holding our breath, because we know that shotgun will fire at some point in the film, and the target will not be a bloody bird.

The start was promising but becomes slow and dragging midway through when the plot starts to focus on the characters. The cinematography does an excellent job in highlighting the setting. It also sets the tone for the film – crisp and steady – a contrast to the plot’s main mystery and murky intentions of the characters.

It reminds us of American Western, or those murder-thriller films set in midwest crop lands. It’s rural cops versus farmland outlaws, the constant use of dirt road and rickety police car, the uneducated who create their own laws, public servants caught in a corrupt system, and guns, plenty of them. The script could have been tighter. We suspect that this was set maybe thirty/thirty five years because of the dated police uniforms and rotary dial phone. It must have been during the Marcos period when farmers are in the height of fighting (and protesting) for their rights on land and labor.  But it wasn’t clear nor did it matter. They could have explored it further to add a deeper sociopolitical element on the missing farmers. Instead the film remains on the surface.

Even though there are plenty of deaths, there are two fatalities that affects us most, and it’s not the humans. On the eagle (called Haribon in Filipino, combination of haring ibon meaning bird-king) we thought “Oh *manure*, please don’t do that.” On Bala we wanted to shout “YOU DID NOT JUST SHOOT THAT DOG!” And we felt depressed until the end.

Birdshot doesn’t give us an Oscar-winning vibe. But the film industry is changing and growing every year. We hope that it’s only a matter of time.

Birdshot stars Mary Joy Apostol, Ku Aquino, John Arcilla. Written by Mikhail RedRae Red. Directed by Mikhail Red. All photos courtesy of IMDB.com
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