Review: Birdshot

Birdshot (directed by Mikhail Red, and written by Mikhail and Rae Red) is a fusion of magic realism and film noir. It’s a dark, tragic coming of age story. It’s a tale of innocence lost in the face of violence, corruption, and abusive authority–innocence of not only Maya (Mary Joy Apostol), the farm-girl protagonist, but also Domingo (Arnold Reyes), a young police officer who is a major viewpoint character.

Maya and Domingo are both paired with gruff older men who expect them to learn about and adapt to the harsh realities of the world to survive. Maya’s mentor is her father, Diego (Ku Aquino), caretaker of agrarian land adjoining a national wildlife refuge. Domingo’s mentor is the thoroughly corrupt and violent partner he’s paired with, Mendoza (John Arcilla), who’s more concerned about pleasing their commanding officer than delivering justice.

Maya is trained by her father to use an old rifle to hunt birds. She’s initially reluctant, but she wanders into the sanctuary to follow a strange call. When she sees a Philippine eagle, she shoots and kills it, inadvertently committing a crime. Meanwhile, Domingo is eager to find out what happened to an abandoned bus and its missing passengers, while his mentor is insistent that he drop the case and focus on the seemingly trivial matter of the missing eagle.

Police corruption is demonstrated on two levels. On the intimate scale of the film’s main events, the officers are called off a major missing persons case and both eventually become comfortable with violence, maiming, torture, killing. On a broader level, higher-level law enforcement and operators of sprawling haciendas are implicated in the exploitation of tenant farm workers and the suppression of protest.

The film hints at magic realism, though it doesn’t go all-in. There is a figure that follows Maya when she is alone; one is left to interpret that figure in a variety of ways. Her grandmother tells her stories about the spirits speaking to the living during the full moon, which frames how much of the film’s events are viewed. In contrast, Domingo seems to encounter a ghost who turns out to be the family member of a missing worker.

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The framing of that moment is great. The police station shuts off power after-hours. Domingo sits at his desk, exhausted, out of leads. He lights a cigarette and sees a ghostly apparition down the hall. We see his surprised face, illuminated by the cigarette. Then we cut to a perspective behind him, looking over his shoulder, framing him faintly in the foreground, with the stark, mysterious figure down the hall; with the cigarette blocked by his body, we only see its smoke, wrapping around the hall like tendrils of mist, or like spectral apparitions of their own. Even once we have a human face for the woman, the lamp Domingo uses gives her a ghastly pallor. She is a ghost, of sorts, a ghost of loss and grief, a voice of the dead.

There are so many moments in this film with beautiful, powerful images. Maya is typically clad in white and red, a none-too-subtle reminder of the violence that stains her innocence (and that is echoed by her own bleeding when she starts menstruating in the middle of the film). Red by blood or cloth or firelight, corpses of birds and people, deep darkness especially in scenes with the police, and the digging of graves (or symbolic graves, as when Diego and Maya attempt to hide the gun) are just some of the symbolic visuals incorporated into the film. So many scenes are loaded with powerful imagery and unearthly sounds breaking silence. So many shots would work just as well as still photography (the cinematographer is Mycko David, but in reviewing the film’s credits I’m reminded that so many people play a role in the creation of a scene and a movie that I feel a little guilty not simply listing everyone here).

The plot is also twisty, winding back on itself in subtle and obvious references to earlier events and dialogue. It slowly builds layers over a straightforward police investigation. It’s simple to follow, but it rewards reflection. My wife and I are still drawing connections and having light-bulb moments days after the film.

Like most great noir, the film ends in tragedy and loss, the protagonists futile against institutional power. Perhaps most shocking to me was the moral collapse of one character only midway through the film. But having not expected a noir film when I began, I was not expecting the conventions of the genre, which were in some ways adhered to and in other ways subverted.

This was powerful, thought-provoking cinema, and I’d highly recommend it. And for now, it’s readily available for streaming via Netflix.

Review: On The Job

I did not know anything about On The Job before I watched it. It was on the shelf in the library, next to Ma’ Rosa in the tiny Filipino film section. It seemed like a dumb action movie, and that was worth a checkout from the library, at least.

In many ways, it is a dumb action movie. Too-tight editing interferes with coherence and causes several jarring cuts between scenes in the first third. Information about the characters’ backgrounds is slowly teased out, though very little is actually treated as a mystery in the film, so the audience is left guessing until the end just to understand basic motivations of the characters. It’s also got a lot of intense fights and cool assassins and corrupt cops and slick action sequences. It’s a fun action movie!

But in other ways, it’s much more than just another dumb action movie. Once I started to piece together all the pieces, I realized that what I once took as defects were intentional misdirects. Where I could guess what would happen for the first two-thirds of the film, for the most part, the last third took several wild twists and wound up in a really dark film noir finale.

One misdirection is simply identifying the protagonist of the film. We are first introduced to Mario (Joel Torre) and Daniel (Gerald Anderson). Mario is an experienced assassin, and Daniel is his understudy. They’re employed by a middleman representing obscured political figures; they get jobs so long as they’re serving their prison terms, as the corrupt guards can get them in and out to provide the perfect cover, and the prisoner-assassins are desperate enough to accept any job without question and expendable enough that there’s no particular risk in using/losing them.

These two do not seem like particularly bad men. Mario wants to get out to be with his family again. Daniel, despite his tough-guy exterior, can be shockingly sweet and loyal. But they’re both willing to kill anyone–including women, including the elderly, and never with a reason, just for cash and a little time out of prison. And Mario in particular is increasingly shown to be flawed, amoral despite his apparent desire to be a better man, caught up in a fantasy about his family that does not match the reality.

If not the assassins, then maybe the police investigating their killings are meant to be the protagonists? We first meet Francis Coronel (Piolo Pascual), a top-of-his-class young police officer, when he is appointed by his father-in-law to head an investigation into the murder of a drug dealer. His father-in-law wants the matter to be handled discretely, and it’s not long before we realize he’s covering for a politician friend who has a history as the head of a contract killing agency. The murder of the drug dealer was carried out by Mario and Daniel, who are working through an intermediary to take out targets who could rat on the politician. Francis seems a little obtuse at first, or maybe just not especially interested in solving the crime. As he learns more of the truth, he is repulsed by his father-in-law’s corruption and personal sins, yet he finds it difficult to betray family. His assigned partner, Bernabe (Rayver Cruz), is a thug who is happy to beat suspects and informants but who seems relatively unconcerned with solving the case as well, and that attitude never really changes for the entirety of his time in the film.

The local police officer originally assigned to the case, Acosta (Joey Marquez), has a passion for justice, but his career has been hamstrung by that ethical drive in a corrupt department. And while we might suspect that he is the protagonist, once he appears, he is even crueler than Bernabe at first, too willing to go too far to try to get information. Furthermore, as a more practical matter, Acosta is just not that prominent in the film until about the midway point.

When Francis and Acosta inevitably team up, they both temper each other. Francis begins to stand up to his wife and father-in-law, unwilling to go along with the rampant corruption, though his opposition comes in fits and starts. Acosta gains focus and drive.

Yet the end of the film is a roller coaster ride that ends with the bad guys winning out, the few honest cops in disarray or dead, and Mario locked up in the hitman life for good. By the end, I decided that while there wasn’t a single protagonist, Mario might have been the chief protagonist–but he was not a hero. He was not even an antihero. He was a man who kills for money, ultimately left by the end with no other motivation. His actions, however, drive the plot and shape the other characters.

In some ways, the film becomes a metaphor for a set-in-its ways old guard that is challenged by a passionate new guard. Systematic corruption and inertia bend survivors to serve the old guard; those who resist are snuffed out. There’s also obvious social commentary in the film. While definitely an over-the-top action movie, police corruption and desperate poverty are perpetually relevant topics.

This film got under my skin and left me thinking. I think a re-watch would probably be quite rewarding. I was expecting a dumb action movie, and I got a complicated neo-noir story.

Director and co-writer Erik Matti delivered a highly compelling film that I would certainly recommend. And Joel Torre’s sympathetic portrayal of the cold killer Mario is a special highlight. This film is worth a watch.

Review: “Amo” and “Ma’ Rosa”

Over the past couple weeks, my wife and I watched first season one of the television series Amo and then the film Ma’ Rosa, both directed by Filipino director Brillante Mendoza.

Mendoza’s presence is obvious in both enterprises. Both show and film have a naturalist approach to film-making, with documentary-style shots of characters interacting, walking, reflecting. The cameras always feel physically present, jostling along in step with a protagonist, zooming in on a memento hanging from a rearview mirror or resting on a table, blurring in and out of focus as though the cameraman is reacting to a truly unexpected series of events. Dialogue is naturalistic, too, with the delivery often muted, lines often rambled and repeated and murmured and talked over. (The actors delivering these lines also carry the fingerprint of Mendoza–we noticed, for instance, that Vince Rillon stars as high-school-age drug runner Joseph Molina in Amo and also has a bit part in Ma’ Rosa, while Felix Roco portrays Molina’s sleazy drug-dealing brother-in-law in Amo and has a supporting role as one of the children of Rosa in the film). Scenes occur where a lot is said, but very little is of importance. It’s not as easy to expect narrative payoff of certain themes or people focused on early on, as the characters and events don’t have arcs so much as a zig-zag series of happenings.

Most importantly, both show and film deal with drug dealers and corrupt police in the era of the Duterte administration. And both have similar things to say. For one thing, Amo and Ma’ Rosa seem to suggest that the ones actually selling the drugs are often very normal, family-oriented, impoverished people who need the extra income in their lives.

In Amo, the primary character is a teenage drug courier who spends his earnings not on himself (for the most part) but on his family; he’s pushed along to move from meth to designer party drugs, getting in increasing legal troubles even as he stays a fairly quiet, reserved young lad. The customers he serves are often young and wealthy–even his early meth trades are on behalf of kids spending their days playing video games in internet cafes (and his original supplier, in contrast, seemed even worse off than him, living in a ramshackle slum dwelling with his wife and daughter). In Ma’ Rosa, Rosa and her husband run a convenience store, which also serves as home for them and their four kids, and the meth dealing they do is presented as a small side business to supplement their meager earnings. There are a couple moments where Rosa’s view lingers on other families. After she and her husband are arrested in a raid, she solemnly watches kids digging through recycling, and the message seems to be that she fears that now, if her husband and she are locked away, her kids might end up on the streets. In the final scene, she watches teary-eyed as a younger family packs up a cart that offered many small convenience goods, and it implicated to me that she now reflected on a simpler time when her family had less, a time before the involvement of drugs.

Amo and Ma Rosa’ also clearly show the police force to be corrupt and ineffective. In Amo, the police kidnap a drug dealer to attempt to get a ransom out of his wife. In Ma Rosa’, the entirety of the plot revolves around Rosa’s arrest and her children’s efforts to collect enough money to meet the police’s required bribe to release their parents (the cops never register them, offering freedom for cash in contrast to otherwise being held without bail with potential life sentences for drug crimes; in a scene that caused a bit of sympathetic terror for me, the kids were led from location to location in the police precinct, no one having any idea of where their parents are or if they’re even there, until a corrupt cop overhears and leads them to a back room). Mendoza often shows police brutality: beatings, kidnappings, warrantless arrests and harassment, and a willingness to kill suspected drug dealers and users. Many are killed by police while fleeing or fighting back. Some are killed without cause, simply because the police had information that they were dealers. And it is implied that some vigilante efforts might also have police involvement or tolerance. Amusingly, Amo also shows how futile some of the police initiatives are. They rounded up people for mandatory drug testing, and those who were willing to promise never to use drugs again were put into zumba courses. Yes, zumba courses as the entirety of drug addiction treatment. The crazy thing is, that surreal practice is real!

Both productions come with ample problematic messaging, as well. Mendoza always displays acts of police brutality and corruption in relation to actual drug users and dealers. I don’t recall a single instance in show or film where the police targeted an innocent person (beyond innocent spouses and children losing their drug-dealing loved ones). Mendoza thus narrows the frame to ask the question, “Is this police force justified in light of the criminal epidemic they face?” And secondarily, he seems to say, “When faced with such greedy, repugnant vice, it is natural that law enforcement would in turn become greedy, repugnant, and vice-driven.” We sometimes hear Duterte in the background of Amo, in news programs, but the top-level officials are presented as blameless (if misguided); corruption is always in the low- and mid-level ranks. Additionally, the drug dealers are shown to be undesirables: the impoverished slum dwellers, foreigners (including Chinese and Japanese nationals), religious minorities (the Muslim community in particular), and hedonistic homosexuals. As much as Mendoza seems at first to be presenting a balanced viewpoint in the early episodes, by the end it should be of no surprise that he is a fervent Duterte supporter. Some of the above just seems to be baggage for this type of crime narrative, though. I saw some reports comparing Amo to Narcos following the former’s acquisition by Netflix, and to an extent this makes sense: both are about real moments in history (one much more recent than the other) in which postcolonial governments have struggled to control the spread of drug trafficking. And Amo and Narcos both seem to apologize for the excesses of law enforcement in their campaigns against the traffickers, even as both shows are quite ready to show that those excesses exist(ed). Maybe it’s the culture gap, or maybe it’s the benefit of slicker American production values, but I think that Narcos managed to be a little subtler in that messaging.

Of all of the problematic elements in Mendoza’s works, I think the most egregious is the representation of homosexuality: in short, always a symptom of widespread vice. In Amo, a couple of nightclub owners apparently get up to homosexual debauchery while using cocaine, and the malleable young Joseph seems to end up as their boy toy for a while (though he also has sex with a lot of other women, as well–more generally, loose sex is linked with drug use in the show). In Ma’ Rosa, one of Rosa’s sons turns to prostitution to raise money to get her out of jail. There’s an uncomfortable scene of the young man lying nude on a bed while his much-older male companion kisses him. The whole time, the boy just looks off in the distance blankly, dispassionately, disconnectedly. It’s not hard to see how Rosa’s arrest led directly to this moment–and her arrest was a direct result of her drug trade. (There’s also some uncomfortably on-point ambient radio chatter directly beforehand about how crocodiles can change sex based on their temperature.)

Despite the problems of both productions, my wife and I largely enjoyed them. Their naturalistic style results in a gritty, simmering narrative where it can be difficult to predict the outcome (especially in Amo). Ma’ Rosa had a carefully tailored narrative arc beneath its naturalistic veneer, and the acting–especially that of Jaclyn Jose as Rosa and Julio Diaz as her husband Nestor–was great. And Amo had the time to explore a great many themes about life under the Duterte administration. Additionally, Amo managed to be simply weird. While couched in realism, the show often veers into the surreal. This ranges from an ever-present street hip-hop crew that raps about the themes and emotions of the episode like a Greek chorus to occasionally disorienting visuals that highlight emotional realities over verisimilitude.

I would recommend both Amo and Ma’ RosaAmo is currently streaming on Netflix, and so is probably the more accessible of the two, but I think that they are both compelling works.