Mikhail Red's sophomore effort is a surprisingly assured film revolving around two mysteries: the disappearance of a busload of agrarian reform activists and the killing of a Philippine (popularly known as 'monkey-eating') eagle.
Actually the second isn't quite a mystery as we know who did it: a young girl named Maya (Mary Joy Apostol, also her second feature) who wanders into a nature preserve and unwittingly brings down the great bird. But why is the felony being prosecuted so vigorously by the police when they have other more urgent cases to resolve? Who is the mysterious red-shirted figure stalking Maya through forests and farm fields on occasion standing silent outside her house?
The answers to these questions are as elusive as the film's setting, time period, identity: Does the story take place in Manila (said to be some two hours away when in real life there's no known eagle sanctuary nearby)? In the recent past or immediate present (the police uniforms are visibly from an older organization but the eagles are tagged with GPS trackers)? Is the picture a crime thriller? A rural noir? A political parable? A horror film?
Some questions about the plot: would a family living beside a bird sanctuary for so long never once talk about its famous occupant? Would a girl with a missing father (Mang Diego, played by Ku Aquino) live for so long on her own without attempting to seek help? And would police officer Domingo (Arnold Reyes) with wife and child to provide for and protect push the investigation of the missing activists so hard when his partner Mendoza (John Arcilla) and superior officer (Dido de la Paz) want him to drop it?
That said why should the rural poor concern themselves with upper-class abstractions like endangered species when they can barely feed themselves? Why shouldn't a young girl who wants to prove she can take care of herself try do so as far and as long as possible? Why shouldn't an aspiring young cop pursue his first big case?
The reasonably intelligent viewer will set aside expectations of fixing time and space and all other ambiguities intentional or not and just sit back enjoy the ride. The film is leisurely paced, a tendency the filmmaker may have inherited from his father (independent filmmaking veteran and Cannes winner Raymond Red), and quietly obliquely told (again a possibly inherited trait) but you see other influences: Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder (the officers' enhanced method of interrogation), Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (a missing woman turned into a busload of activists), Boorman's Deliverance (the forest or jungle as a source of menace). Overambitious models (Red wisely or unwisely though I suspect the former doesn't even try approach Boorman's level of gutchurning violence) but it's in the nature of the young to fail or succeed in a big way.
The filmmaker suggests through his storytelling style that the plot is incidental that his real focus is on atmosphere and imagery. The long hushed silences the carefully layered sound effects (crickets wind muted animal cries) the rich color palette (from the bright green of cornstalks to the deeper green of forest to the startling blood-red of a shirt tied round the neck) the framing that emphasizes a shotgun's endless length (interestingly the young girl kicks off the story by wielding the film's most prominent phallic symbol).
The bus is a reference to the Maguindanao massacre; the officers' arbitrary arrest policies and less-than-orthodox interrogation tactics follow what is generally known about the Filipino police; the eagle reminds us of our dwindling flora our threatened fauna. The film deftly touches on these subjects doesn't hammer away at them and they benefit from the light handling--more subtly alluded to as in a poem than loudly declared as in a propaganda piece.
Which finally may be the best way to regard the film, as a piece of visual poetry. Maya and Domingo's story rhyme and resonate with each other: both are relative naifs under the wing of a father or a father figure (Diego and Mendoza respectively); both are visited by unearthly presences (the man in the red shirt, the woman in the middle of the night); both make bad mistakes (Maya with the eagle Domingo with the authorities); both pay a terrible price for their missteps. When Maya (skip the rest of the paragraph if you plan to see the film!) comes face to face with Domingo at either end of the shotgun it's like the hero confronting his doppelganger, his symbolic spiritual supernatural self (the two seem vaguely aware of the momentousness of the occasion). One breaks the spell of parallelism with a definitive gesture; the other comes away in tears, thoroughly chastened.
Remarkable second feature showing a willingness to experiment and a skill with sound color imagery. Flawed but with enough interesting ideas that you hope to see what the filmmaker's next work will be like.