WTF ASIA 18: Birdshot (2016)

WTF ASIA 18: Birdshot (2016)

In Part 2 of the completely unintentional Bird Trilogy, humanity is for the birds.

Free on Netflix. Approximately 116 minutes.

 

Maya is a teenager who lives with her father, grandmother, and dog in a remote house by the forest. Her father, Diego, is teaching her to shoot ducks. Unfortunately, she cannot pull the trigger, so he takes the gun and kills the duck. He gently scolds her for not taking the lessons seriously, warning her that he may not be around to take care of her for long. Immediately after that, he reminds her about a kid from town who disappeared when his father left him alone for just a little while as a warning against wandering off on her own, especially past the border. Maya doesn’t seem to take either part of his lecture to heart.

Domingo is a rookie cop in a small town as well as a new father. His partner, Captain Mendoza, doesn’t even remember his name. They had been tasked with tracking a bus that was supposed to pass through their jurisdiction, but went missing. Their search leads to a group of men in the forest illegally cutting down trees. All the men flee, but the cops catch a guy named Benny. Dismissing Benny’s insistence that his boss had already paid their boss, Mendoza interrogates him, saying that the bus must have passed by Benny and his associates after taking a detour on its planned two-hour trip.  When Benny does not cooperate, Mendoza orders Domingo to hold Benny down so that Mendoza can take an ax to his arm.

Domingo is speechless when they get back to the car, but Mendoza mockingly verbalizes everything that Domingo is probably thinking, belittling his moral dilemma with his duty as an officer of the law. Oh, the movie does not show whether Mendoza actually chopped off Benny’s arm, though we may assume that he didn’t. In any case, they have learned the location of the bus. They find it at the side of the road by some random field. The motor kept running and the bus ran out of gas. The driver and passengers are missing. They find…a little bit of evidence, but with no reports of rebels or terrorists, Mendoza claims that they still have nothing.

Maya is resting on a hill when she hears a bird in the distance, past the border that her father warned her against crossing. She tries to make her way towards it, walking by a chain-link fence until she finds a hole that she can go through. It takes a while, but Maya eventually finds the bird. Remembering her father’s tips, she takes out the gun and shoots it dead. She is taking it back to the fence when she sees a person in the distance, so she runs back. Whether or not she had known, Maya had trespassed on a protected area. If she had been caught, then she would have been fined almost $3,000 US. If she had been caught with the dead bird…

Diego is…not happy to see how Maya took the initiative to bring back dinner on her own. Maya is confused. Apparently, he had repeatedly told her to never cross the border, but never told her why. Either way, he cooks it and they eat it for dinner. He is at least happy that she remembered his shooting lessons, but tells her to hide the gun and not tell anyone that she had shot the bird.

It is in the middle of the night and the power is off at the police station, but Domingo is still there working out the case when a woman comes in, asking about a man who has gone missing. She doesn’t know if he was on the bus, but she knows that he was going to Manila with others for their case in a land dispute.

The next morning, Domingo tries to go to the chief with a new hunch, but the chief is uninterested in finding a bunch of people who may have run off. In the meantime, there is a new case to solve. A haribon, a Philippine Eagle, has gone missing from the local sanctuary, separated from its electronic tracker. Domingo and Mendoza are tasked with finding it. Domingo starts to protest, but the chief says that authorities in Manilla will finish the bus case, while the search for an endangered national animal is of local importance. Domingo expresses skepticism about anyone from Manila investigating the bus, but the chief shuts him up. It does not appear that the chief particularly cares about either case, but he says that he has his orders and orders Mendoza to keep Domingo in line.

They meet a man who works at the sanctuary, who explains that there now are only 30 left in the sanctuary. And the haribon cannot survive long outside of the sanctuary thanks to timber poaching, illegal logging, and fire starters; there is not even enough for them to eat outside of the sanctuary. Meanwhile, Domingo finds the shotgun shell. It is not long before they find their way to the fence and the hole.

 

 

If the previous description sounds like two different stories, that is because the movie is loosely based on two true stories from the southern island of Mindanao in 2008 and 2009. Of course, this movie does not depict either story with any sense of accuracy, especially as the movie takes place on the northern island of Luzon, less than a couple hours from Manila. But I am sure that Philippine audiences would recognize parallels.

I suppose that the filmmaker could have theoretically made each story the focus of its own film. The storyline of Domingo and the missing bus is kind of a standard story of political intrigue, brutality from the powerful, and potentially vast government conspiracy. The storyline of Maya is about a girl coming of age with few people to guide her into adulthood and the guides whom she does have giving her mixed messages at best. Then there is the tale of the haribon, threatened on all sides by humans. Potentially good stories in their own right, but maybe a bit simple for audiences to digest.

In putting all of these things together, the movie juxtaposes them thematically, perhaps asking the viewer to judge what should be seen as more important. Like with the haribon, Maya’s world is rendered small, but within a larger one. The radio and her grandmother (who kind of just leaves halfway through for whatever reason) give her a taste of the lands beyond, but her father insists that the outside world is dangerous. And he is right; there are violent criminals not too far away, and the cops are at least as bad. Then again, his attempts at sheltering her while claiming that he is helping her become independent and unwillingness to elaborate on basic things (such as exactly why she must never cross the border) threaten to leave her completely ignorant of real dangers. Meanwhile, Domingo is eventually told that the bus case is none of his business, as the people are from elsewhere and they were heading elsewhere. There is a greater world that has nothing to do with him; the haribon is his world.

There is a sense of quiet menace that is present throughout the movie. No matter how serene or how loud or how fast-paced it gets, there is the feeling that something big is lurking just around the corner. Or in front of our eyes in the distance. Maya and Domingo may slowly descend into more and more danger, but neither is without a dangerous side when pushed to the edge. Thus, the threat comes not just from outside forces or from forces close by, but also from within oneself. By expanding this story from just Maya or just Domingo, the movie suggests that this is a universal issue, rather than one exhibited by a single character. While there are implications of something supernatural going on, and audiences can interpret the movie to be supernatural horror, it is not an explicitly supernatural like many movies from the region. The malevolent spirits are just out of sight. The horror that we do see is overtly human and every day.

Thought the haribon is justifiably protected, no such equivalent seems extended to people. The police pay lip service to it, but only Domingo seems to have any actual interest in solving the mystery of the bus. Indeed, the haribon case is used as an excuse to end investigation into the bus case. That said, the haribon case itself is not frivolous. So, should they be given equal importance? Can you be equally concerned for two different things and still do justice to both? If not, which should be considered more important? Could they be addressed at the same time by the same people? Would a young, isolated girl with little understanding about the legal ramifications of shooting a haribon be given a six-year-sentence? Maybe, maybe not. She certainly would not have the support or protection of whoever was behind the bus disappearance; that is for sure.

Taken on their own, each storyline could have stood out on its own and hold the full attention of the audience. But they are not on their own. Fair or not, they are linked. They are crammed in together. They struggle with each other and against each other, pulling the audience in different directions. And not just  on one region or island. They are all part of the story of the modern Philippines. And maybe beyond.

 

WTF ASIA 19: The Bird People in China (Japan: 1998, approx. 118 minutes)

Wikipedia

Available…somewhere online.

 

 

WTF ASIA 20: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (China…sort of: 2000, Approx. 120 minutes)

Wikipedia

Available on AmazonGoogle PlayiTunesStarzVudu, and Youtube.