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.
From the earliest scenes of the film, Maya seeks freedom like a young bird raring to fly out of its nest. Her father Diego (Ku Aquino) teaches her the use of a gun and the value of self-sufficiency, but she does not want to spend the rest of her life as a caretaker like him, even if she relishes the sense of independence the wide lands provide her. She reaches a turning point when she wanders into the sanctuary her father expressly forbade her from entering, the allegorical forbidden land. In a desire to prove her worth, she shoots and kills the magnificent haribon, unaware of its privileged status.
Maya and Diego’s father-and-daughter relationship, a nurturing though firm and unaffectionate bond, parallels with that of Mendoza and Domingo (John Arcilla and Arnold Reyes), the police officers assigned to the haribon poaching case. Both Diego and Mendoza are training their protégées in the techniques of survival in a dangerous world. But while Maya’s father teaches her independence, Domingo’s partner lures him to corruption.
(The parallels are enhanced by details. Maya’s grandmother visits her in the night, just as another woman appears in Domingo’s office at a late hour. Maya is briefly absorbed with combing her hair, while Mendoza mockingly offers Domingo a comb whenever the latter shows up disheveled at the office after a rough night.)
Warning: the rest of the review includes spoilers.
Domingo, initially the principled cop, is frustrated when their assigned case of missing farmers is replaced by the seemingly petty case of a missing bird. He insists on digging into the farmers’ case, and uncovers a deep conspiracy: the missing farmers were on their way to a court hearing in the city, where they hoped to win rights to a land controlled by a wealthy, powerful hacienda. But the consequences of his curiosity quickly escalates, leading into the heart-stopping scene when he comes home to a death threat against his family.
His turning point comes in short order, in another brilliant scene, when he and Mendoza have arrested Diego and are now, with a few other officers, torturing Diego into confession. After bare fists proved insufficient for Diego’s stern spirit, Mendoza asks for each of his colleagues’ wedding rings, to form makeshift brass knuckles. Domingo refuses—then asks for the rings, so he could put them on and smash Diego’s face with his own fist. He keeps his ring, that symbol of marriage and family, his prime motivations for turning, and with it commits his first act of corruption.
(Yet another clever scene, demonstrating how intelligent this film is, is the earlier torture scene in which Mendoza, on his first mission with Domingo, terrorizes an illegal logger for information. He swings an axe as if to severe the man’s arm, then the film abruptly cuts to the two officers back in their car. Domingo, shocked and speechless at Mendoza’s cruel methods, listens helplessly to Mendoza’s mocking monologue about his own madness and Domingo’s principles. Whether the logger’s arm was indeed cut off was never shown by the film. It’s irrelevant to the story; only its effect on the characters matters.)
Birdshot concludes with horror after horror. Diego, having escaped from prison, comes home and briefly reunites with Maya, just as Mendoza and Domingo arrive with lethal intentions. Diego shoves Maya away and fires at the police. The shootout kills him and Mendoza, and badly wounds Domingo. Maya, regaining her senses, returns to the scene and sees her father’s lifeless body. She notices Domingo and, in grief and anger, reloads her father’s gun, and aims it at the helpless man.
This is her final rite of passage, and Birdshot’s defining moment. Will she pull the trigger, and take the violent but senseless path of revenge? She hesitates for a long moment before, with trembling hands, she lowers the gun. Perhaps she remembered how her earlier act of killing, against a similarly vulnerable creature, led to all this tragedy.
But the moment of justice is fleeting, because a haribon flies ominously above, and leads Maya back to the sanctuary, right into the larger, more horrifying plot of violence: she finds an open pit, a terrifying mass grave, filled with the decaying bodies of the missing farmers.
Here, Birdshot’s allegory snaps into clarity. Maya and her father may have been victims of police cruelty, but Mendoza and Domingo themselves are merely pawns, and all of them, including especially the massacred farmers (without whom, it must be recalled, society will starve), are all bottom-dwellers in the food chain of society, all prey in a world where privileged predators reign supreme.
Mikhail Red, Birdshot’s director and co-writer, tells us that the film was inspired by an actual news report of a farmer who killed a Philippine eagle, unaware of its legally protected status. But we can also imagine the story growing out of a silly concept: of the disgraced former national bird, personified by Maya, finally getting its revenge by shooting and killing the new king.
This author admits to being an admirer of the Philippine eagle. It was a little frightening to see Diego chop up and cook the creature on-screen. Of course, no animals were actually harmed in the making of the film—at least not counting poultry, it seems. That chicken (or turkey?) that stood-in for the dead eagle is a cinematic martyr.
Film still taken from IMDb.com.