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‘Birdshot’ takes aim at moral dilemmas

For cinephiles who have been seeing local films in theaters, the opening sequence in "Birdshot" has been sowing intrigue, further stoked by its Best Picture win in the Asian Future Competition at the 29th Tokyo International Film Festival

In the trailer, we see Maya (Mary Joy Apostol) steadying her hands as she takes aim at an unknown target.

Her father, Diego (Ku Aquino), is a disembodied voice giving her guidance.

The scene happens early on and sets the tone for the rest of the movie: Maya must learn about the politics of firing a gun. Director and co-writer Mikhail Red explores the consequences of the shot Maya fired and, ultimately, the shot she decides to throw.

At the heart of it, "Birdshot" feels like a coming-of-age film more than a thriller. Not just because of Maya's journey, but of newbie cop Domingo's (Arnold Reyes) as well.

Their paths cross when Domingo is forced to drop an investigation involving a bus carrying 10 farmers that disappeared in the middle of the night and is instead reassigned to track down a missing Haribon (Philippine Eagle).

Maya is forced to take a shaky step into adulthood when she shot the Haribon. Domingo struggles to find his footing when the rug is pulled from under him by a broken system.

Red takes great effort to lure the audience into the mystery of the missing bus along with Domingo and everyone shares in the frustration as he runs into a wall in the form of their police chief.

Red additionally wastes no time telling the audience via an illegal logger that the police can be paid off as a tale of corruption runs quietly in the background.

Domingo is, to describe it in a cute way, bibo. He wears his uniform with pride and he wants to do right by the people. He is extremely easy to like, as cleans up after other people.

In a post-screening Q&A panel, Reyes shared with the audience that the road forks for Domingo early on: He either gets beaten by the system or he becomes a symbol of hope.

Domingo, even Red admits, is the most relatable. His principles and subsequent struggles are laid out. And with the help of another great performance by John Arcilla as his partner Mendoza, his transformation makes for a compelling watch.

In a world where every cop must live with the stigma of being corrupt and needlessly violent, Domingo offers a necessary insight into the environment that hinders "good" from flourishing.

Domingo's inner conflict casts a large shadow on Maya's character development and her growth doesn't manifest until a critical point in the film. Her predominantly brown wardrobe enforces an image of a withered leaf, caught in the wind and constantly under threat of getting crushed.

It is difficult to understand what goes on in her head as she isn't afforded much agency; the innocence Red wants to evoke borders on ignorance at times. In an audible whisper, someone in the theater was heard pointing out how foolish it was for her to wear the Haribon claw as a necklace.

This foolishness behind it is not discussed and only serves to move the plot.

These tiny missteps feel like a loose thread begging to be cut as it distracts the audience from the tapestry of stories that should be told. The grander narrative is interesting, making the inserts of Lola brushing Maya's hair and instructing her to be more feminine feels out of place.

The contrast between the manhunt for the naive girl who shot a Haribon and the case of the farmers left to grow cold could have been sharper if Maya's character felt the full impact of her actions.

We see glimpses of what could be: Maya walking into the river after she menstruates creates a compelling image. She is becoming a woman and the tragic events that follow seals the deal. Her transformation makes for a strong ending.

Her father Diego could have taken a backseat earlier in the film to show hints of this growth. Ku Aquino's screen time would have been reduced, but that's a sacrifice that should have been made. Masterful as his performance was, this should have been Maya's story.

All that being said, "Birdshot" is a cut above the rest. It is ambitious in all aspects and all directors should be aiming this high.

It didn't quite hit the target squarely, but it landed a solid punch. — LA/KVD, GMA News