‘Birdshot’: a breathtaking fable of predators and prey

Like the haribon, the film is graceful, breathtaking, and powerful.

The haribon—the “king bird”, the Philippine eagle—is an apex predator. It perches atop the food chain, over the forest ranges where it reigns. It is a hunter that is itself not hunted by any other creature—until humans came along. Birdshot is a film whose story precipitates from a young girl’s encounter with a haribon, and its consequences that play upon roles of predators and prey, of kings and pawns.

Like the eagle that inspires the film, Birdshot is a refined, seamless and graceful mystery-thriller. Each sequence is impeccably cut and paced to build tension or conjure dread. Even the dialogue is precise, the characters speaking efficiently, contemplating every word as a hunter preparing for every kill. The film is set in a remote tract in the Philippine countryside: isolated, pure and enchanting, but also brooding with threats of evil.

Birdshot is also a coming-of-age story. The farm lass at its center, Maya (Mary Joy Apostol), possesses a simple, quintessentially Filipina beauty. Her clothes, rough earthly garments highlighted by a red wrap, recalls the plumage of the mayang pula, the humble bird that was the national bird before the haribon took its place. She may be innocent and look meek, but she is not entirely submissive. Once, her grandmother visits and admonishes her for not keeping her hair well-combed. For a while she is occupied with her appearance, but comes to realize that if its sole purpose is to attract men, then it is worth nothing to her.

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Cinemalaya 2017 review: all 9 full-length and 12 short-feature films

A round-up of all the main competition entries in this year’s festival.

“See the big picture,” goes the tagline for the 13th edition of the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, the premiere indie film fest in the country. Nine full-length films and twelve short features contribute to a mosaic snapshot of Filipino society, delivered in patches of varying intensity and color.

Disclaimer: these reviews avoid revealing major story spoilers, but other elements, like themes, are discussed extensively. Read at your own risk.

Nabubulok

A husband takes flight when his wife goes missing.

Nabubulok in style and spirit feels akin to a Brillante Mendoza work. In this film, a crime drama based on a true story, the sound effects are spare, the lighting is natural, and the camera has a habit of following the shadow of everyday characters in short walks around town. It even has that subplot of a family working together, pooling money for an urgent purpose, seen in Thy Womb and Ma’ Rosa. But this is not quite cinema verité: there is more overt acting, and finer cinematography than a Mendoza film would tolerate.

Given the premise and the film’s early scenes, one might expect a crime thriller. But save for a mid-story encounter, the film never really provides the heart-pounding type of suspense. This is by design, not by fault—what the film provides is an atmospheric, slow-burning kind of thriller. Nabubulok could benefit, however, from tighter scripting of dialogue. When Ingrid (Gina Alajar) asks around about her missing cousin, she and others say the same things they have learned so far to each new character they encounter, and the repetitiveness drags the suspense.

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‘Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B’: dark romance, visceral thrills

Striking visuals, genuine thrills and a few subtleties more than offset the story’s shortcomings.

Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B is a horror-romance film that seduces with millennial sensibilities: balancing its brooding atmosphere with injections of humor, delivering eye-catching cinematography and Instagram-worthy production design, featuring a hip and esoteric indie soundtrack, and setting up its scenes with meme-friendly situations. It is a movie that can be enjoyed by the most casual moviegoer—anyone seeking bloody thrills, feverish titillations, and affecting romances—yet it is a film with something to say beyond this enthralling shell of plain entertainments.

Consider, for instance, the intriguing title. For city dwellers, the manananggal is merely an ominous mythological terror, a vague threat lingering out there—but the film’s title locates the creature, makes it present with shocking particularity: she lives in an apartment just like yours, in Unit 23B. This specificity reflects how the film presents the manananggal not as a creature of pure malice, but as a person like the rest of us—only, that she is also afflicted with a monstrous other side, that terrifies her just as much as it does her victims.

The eponymous Unit 23B is not a mere quirk; the apartment points to the film’s central theme. Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B, like director Prime Cruz’s previous film Sleepless, is a story of alienation. Its protagonists, Jewel (Ryza Cenon) and Nico (Martin del Rosario), like Sleepless’s Gem and Barry, are lonely neighbors. Romance springs from this proximity: love conquers the irony of apartments, that as people come to live closer together in cities, they lose the solidarity of neighborhoods; people live together but apart, shuffling and hurrying around in urban anonymity.

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When the movies were still projected from film reels

I’m old enough to recall the time when couriers still zipped between moviehouses, reels of film on their shoulders.

Since 2008’s The Dark Knight, I’ve been anticipating every Christopher Nolan film with the excitement of a teenage girl waiting for the next One Direction album. Such is my confidence in the quality of Nolan’s films that I splurged on an IMAX ticket to see his latest film, Dunkirk, without reading a review or hearing anyone’s recommendation beforehand. (Dunkirk is a film that the aforementioned teenage girl would have also looked forward to, because One Direction’s Harry Styles is in its cast.)

I had forgotten how impressive, how immense, these IMAX screens were. I plopped down on my seat and, wild-eyed, gaped at just how immersive the projected image was. The screen was alarming in its vastness, in how it covered so much of my field of vision. Dunkirk began with a scene of soldiers running from gunfire; when the camera started shaking, I worried that my eyeballs also had to jerk around so much just to follow the action on-screen. Thankfully, the rest of movie had its camerawork done in steady hands. By the end of it, I was satisfied, thinking my cash was well-spent.

Wooden sculptures of a sitting figure (a Cordilleran bulol) and a movie camera, from an exhibit by Kidlat Tahimik.
A depiction of the Cordilleran bulol as a filmmaker: detail from a Kidlat Tahimik exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, during Cinemalaya 2014. (Photo by the author.)

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The deliverance of ‘Dunkirk’

Not a spectacle of combat, but an immense story of survival.

The enemy is faceless in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. We know who they are—but as our protagonists, the Allied troops, are gunned down on land, their ships sunk at sea, their planes shot down from the sky, all we see of the enemy are the bombs they let fall, the holes their bullets puncture, the war machines their air forces fly.

Clearly, this is not a war film where combat is the spectacle; it is a survival story. On land, the Allied armies are fighting for a shrinking patch of territory, against the vicious foe surrounding them. At the shore, the troops await evacuation and form lines, in defiance of the featureless, infinite beach, sky and sea. But neither is the water any refuge. The merciless enemy delivers setback after setback to our protagonists on the English Channel: bombed ships, flooded decks, burning oil. From the sky, they rain bullets, and propaganda.

The escape from Dunkirk took place in the early years of the Second World War. It saw the Allied armies rushing out to sea, a movement in reverse of what would happen on Normandy, on D-Day years later. Normandy would be an invasion: the soldiers would storm the beaches from the sea, with a mission to reconquer Europe. The soldiers who waded onto land on D-Day had a mission, and they were prepared for it. It was not easy, many men would fall; we have seen its brutality in films like Saving Private Ryan. But Normandy would not have been possible if not for the miracle at Dunkirk—where the escape from disaster was met with further disaster, where the weary soldiers had no mission but to survive.

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