Wednesday, July 05, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Birdshot

It is empowering for young girls to learn how to shoot and hunt, like Aisholpan, the Eagle Huntress. Maya’s father Diego should have just spent a little more time on the rules of the road. When she unknowingly bullseyes an endangered Philippine “monkey-eating” eagle, they become a convenient distraction from a politically-charged mass murder in Mikhail Red’s Birdshot (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.

Conscious of his advanced years, Diego is training his daughter Maya to be self-sufficient. Unfortunately, she took too much initiative venturing over to the wilderness preserve. When he sees her game, Diego immediately understands the potential trouble. He does his best to dispose of the evidence, but as the only home within miles of the preserve, it is inevitable the police will come calling.

Initially, veteran officer Mendoza and his idealistic rookie partner Domingo were working a different, more pressing case. An entire bus loaded with passengers disappeared on route to Manila. They found the bus, but not the people. However, it turns out a number of the presumed victims were a party to a land rights case pending against a major plantation. Just as they start to make some headway, they are yanked from the case and assigned the ornithocide. Hey, any Green voter would agree one dead bird is way more important than a dozen or so murdered people.

Red’s set-up is highly compelling, but his execution is more than heavy-handed. Slowly but surely, Domingo becomes exactly the sort of monster he once held in contempt (a process that takes less than a week, as Mendoza wryly observes) and Diego is sacrificed on a cross of eagle feathers in a third act that feels more like a class-conscious passion play than a climax to a gritty thriller.

Still, Mary Joy Apostol is absolutely mesmerizing as the semi-wild Maya. She is naturally intense and totally unaffected. She also works well with dogs (the remarkably well-trained Mala) and Ku Aquino, whose turn as Diego is quiet and reserved, but acutely powerful. John Arcilla does his thing as the corrupt-in-a-give-a-toss-sort-of-way Mendoza, much as he did in Metro Manila, but with less flair. Arnold Reyes is sufficiently tightly wound as Domingo, but his accelerated arc of disillusionment makes things a bit too pat.

Birdshot has its flaws, but it makes a valid point contrasting our exaggerated concern for one animal versus society’s disinterest in the well-being of our fellow men. It is a strong cast, working amid a potent atmosphere of paranoia, but it just doesn’t sustain itself. It is a mixed bag, but not one that ultimately merits a recommendation. For those still intrigued, Birdshot screens tomorrow (7/6) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.