Mikhail Red’s Arisaka unfolds quietly with a panoramic view of Bataan mountain range.
A narrow road cuts through the verdant landscape to reveal a vehicle full of police officers, one of them a woman. She is ominously quiet, if, restless. Her face is a picture of incoming damnation or inner disquiet. She is probably figuring out a life in danger or hanging on to what’s left of her humanity.
Flashbacks come and go.
She is asked to kill an activist as some kind of initiation to the inner police circle. She nearly followed the order but at the last moment, there is some hesitancy as if some inner voice is reminding her you can’t go this far. You can’t kill just to be accepted. But the activist begging for his life probably got to her. She draws the line.
But then this was all planned. They have to die in a massacre programmed to be advertised as an encounter with dissidents. When the sound of guns stopped, she was the only survivor but literally riddled with bullet wounds.
She hid in a jungle and was reared by a young Aeta mountain girl.
After surviving her pursuers, the girl led the wounded police officer to a cave full of skeletons and remnants of World War II. She found a vintage Japanese bolt-action rifle known as Arisaka and decided to exact justice for the Aeta family gunned to death by her pursuers.
She exacts quick revenge and plans to go back to the lowlands.
On the way, she saw a marker saying that road was were hundreds did their survival march in the last world war.
It is an irony her own life has been reduced to a survival trek to freedom long after the war was over.
One figures out how she will make out her fate.
She was trained to pursue and get rid of the enemy but how come the enemy is within the official circle?
Then she limps through the road to deliverance.
To be sure, the lead actors deliver.
That Aeta girl named Sheila Mae Romualdo was a revelation as she went through a transformation as an innocent mountain girl to an anguished native seeing her family die from bullet wounds and later devoured by fire.
The police officer of Mon Confiado is well-defined as he remained wicked and unforgiving but delivering his lines within the beat and rhythm of the director’s cinematic vision. It’s not just acting through his body. It is not just physical acting but finding life in the cadenced poetic lines of the scriptwriter, Anton Santamaria.
But the biggest revelation is the police officer of Maja Salvador as Maja Mariano. She has very little lines to deliver but her portrayal is that of a brave woman trying to survive the machismo initiation of her fellow officers. The sight of her trying to survive bullet wounds while fleeing her enemies is just as moving as it was a great portrayal of woman power. I expect her to collect one award after another in this role.
On the whole, it is vintage Mikhail Red film with all the subtleties intact and with the big message there for all to see.
Arisaka means a lot to him, the director said after the screening. It is his first film that survived the pandemic and three strong typhoons headed by Typhoon Rolly.
The film reflected a lot on how he felt about life during the pandemic and how the government handled it. “In a way,” he said, “the film let out my inner anger because of the way people dealt with the crisis.”
He stopped short of saying that the government is trying to solve problems the military way and with no considerations for the health components.
In a way, the film is reminiscent of one of his first output, Birdshot which also has police rookies doing everything to hide a crime. And then again, you see another police character (John Arcilla) moving heaven and earth to cover up a massacre.
Of this early output, Red allows his audiences to explore new labyrinths in filmmaking and make something refreshing out of old subjects.
To be sure, his approach is not typical of today’s young filmmakers. He is inclined to tell a story by challenging the imagination of his viewers.
In Birdshot, there is no clue as to how the film would end. You get exposed to frames of countryside images — most of them starkly without music. Teresa Barrozo’s music is spare and really effective. It doesn’t romanticize the rural scenes. Instead, you get natural ebb and flow from the surrounding: Bird sounds from the forest, the onrush of water from the river and beautiful sunrise and sunset.
The rural setting of Birdshot makes you think the film is about a crusade to save endangered species like the Philippine eagle. But midway into the film, the mystery of the abandoned bus and two policemen figuring in the investigation provide us an eerie picture of a disturbing life in that slice of rural paradise.
It is a big coincidence that policemen continue to hog the headlines for killings identified with anti-drug operations and anti-insurgency missions.
In Birdshot, director Red made a big, but subtle statement on the state of police corruption in the rural areas.
In some ways, Red echoes the early visions of filmmakers Lino Brocka and Ismael Bernal.
For instance, one’s interest in Mikhail Red’s NeoManila stems from a curiosity on how a millennial filmmaker can portray the city’s dark side.
To be sure, Manila as common destination for poor urban dwellers has been the setting of Brocka’s Maynila Sa Mga Kulo ng Liwanag, Insiang and Gumapang Ka Sa Lusak, among others.
NeoManila couldn’t get any seedier than Ishmael Bernal’s City After Dark. After a few minutes on the big screen, you find yourself thoroughly involved with the characters as though they inhabit your neighborhood milieu.
To be sure, there is nothing new in the urban setting. The characters are likewise familiar figures in Manila’s crime scene. But Mikhail redefines them with a certain detachment as he sees them running away from law enforcers who are really in cahoots with lawbreakers.
In the eyes of Red, Manila is where you can retell stories from the most noble and onto the seamier side of the city.
It is just uncanny that you recall Julio Madiaga’s odyssey in Maynila when you see the young character trying to survive a dog-eat-dog world of the city.
It is easy to categorize Neomanila as just another social commentary on the government’s bloody war on drugs.
But to the director’s credit, he didn’t point fingers at anyone, not even the government. His story is as shockingly real it can be viewed as another lesson on practical sociology with Philippine setting.
Looking back before the pandemic, Red has made forays into the horror genre by way of Eerie and the zombie film, Block Z.
Indeed, Eerie was a milestone for Red as the film earned earned P40M in its first four days of screening.
In the past, indie directors are used to lukewarm reception at the box-office even as they get one good review after another and later vindicated in foreign film fest abroad.
That Eerie was reviewed by critics of consequence was one thing but the horror film fans followed suit doing their own personal reviews of the film. It is a good sign that when a film connects very well, it brings out the best among reviewers, seasoned and otherwise.
It is another rare case when a critic’s verdict finds acceptance in mainstream audiences. We have so many cases of Rated A and B films that languish in the box office enough for one director to shout help saying its time the government intervenes and find a solution.
Eerie, however, was made of sterner stuff and proved that a well-made film will make sense not just with reviewers but with the mass audiences as well.
It ended up a truly landmark horror film that found acceptance from different audience types from the millennials to the post-millennials.
After a long, long time, you see a film that truly scares the wits out of you.
In his late 20s before the pandemic, Red is turning out to be the new enfant terrible of Philippine cinema. The young filmmaker has his own unique style which he says is just a matter of finding new ways of telling a story away from the established and all too predictable pattern.
His last pre-pandemic output was a zombie film with Philippine setting.
It is set in a typical Philippine campus with recognizable characters from strict school officials to repressed librarians and barkada groups from one of which he singled out a group he named Block Z.
By coincidence, Block Z was an ominous prelude to the pandemic.
In a campus setting, a zombie epidemic breaks out and both students and teachers and school heads have to find a way to put the crisis under control and survive.
The director earlier told me it was a very contained movie as he transformed a school campus into one big horror house full of zombie characters. His creative juices started flowing from there.
It was nothing totally new to him because as early as age 15 when he studied under Marilou Diaz-Abaya, he would fancy doing zombie films using ketchup as make-believe blood. “So, when I was given the opportunity to do a big, studio-funded zombie film, I jumped at the idea. It took a year and a half to prepare and shoot it but it is all worth it. This is the big zombie movie I’ve always wanted to do when I was younger. I started by planning the mechanics and then choosing the cast and closely working with the creative team.”
He admitted that doing a zombie film was not a walk in the park. There are so many things to attend to, from working on the rapport with the cast, overseeing prosthetics work on hundreds of zombie extras to building their individual characters in the movie. “We had zombie classes instead of zumba sessions. It can’t be helped that there were lots of stunts and lots of speed running, a lot of screaming and gore.”
Mikhail said the horror film was a battle of survival with the characters faced with tough choices and in the process testing their humanity.
From his own experience thus far, it takes quite a lot to do a good horror movie.
“Every horror film is an adventure into the unknown and working with all the elements that make up the genre,” he pointed out. “For one, it has a very visual language and the script should conceal and reveal at the same time. Early on, I have very good exercises doing the visual language. Then you work with your actors and make sure they gel with their characters and looking believable, especially in their argument scenes. It is a test of concentration to be able to deliver lines facing a lighting crew. Then you figure out one scene still needs something to look real and you suggest the sound of footsteps in the sound design.”
To sum up, he reiterates what it takes to do films. It involves closely working with a lot of talents and you make sure your vision is articulated. It is also a test of dynamics working with the young, if, inexperienced actors to the seasoned ones. You have to enjoy the process in order to survive the tiresome pre-and post-production phases of the film.
To recap his short foray into filmmaking, Mikhail had a memorable year before the pandemic.
He made his first studio blockbuster, he acquired his first car and first condo, he figured in his first Hollywood connection, he did his first Netflix original film and first HBO series.
A college dropout by choice, Mikhail is only 29 and the power and the passion to do good movies still consume him.
“In the beginning, it was just a hobby and I figured that since I dropped studies to focus on filmmaking, I have no choice but to make a career out of it and to make sure it works for you. I treat every project as an opportunity to learn and I make sure I am doing something new and enjoying the process.”
It was the same experience doing Arisaka.
He enjoyed the preparations with strict health protocols and he survived the typhoons that threatened to wreak havoc on the project.
But after watching Arasaka, you know where Mikhail’s heart is.
He describes the film as his own idea of a Western. It is also a survival thriller. It follows the perspective of a policewoman who survives a police ambush and hides in the Bataan wilderness.
By coincidence, it is also the same landscape where the World War II Death March survivors tried to escape their captors. “My story is set in the present day, but there are certain elements in the film that parallel that part of history. Only this time we have more local antagonists.”
Like it or not, it is his way of fusing the chaotic present and historic past together.
(Produced by Ten 17P production of Paul Soriano, “Arisaka” is directed by Mikhail Red with script by Anton Santamaria. It is now airing on Netflix.)