Mikhail Red: The passion that provokes

After making his dream zombie film, Philippine cinema’s enfant terrible takes on corruption in law enforcement

Mikhail Red at 30: Millennial filmmaker can dwell on the city's dark side, in some ways echoing a Lino Brocka or Ishmael Bernal. (Mikhail Red's official FB)

Maja Salvador in ‘Arisaka’— her best performance ever (Ten17 P Production)

Mikhail Red’s Arisaka unfolds quietly, with a panoramic view of the 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 hints at forthcoming 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 into the inner police circle. She nearly follows the order, but at the last moment, there is hesitation, 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 is all planned. They have to die in a massacre staged as an encounter with dissidents. When the sound of gunfire stops, she emerges as the only survivor, but is literally riddled with bullet wounds.

She hides in a jungle and is cared for by a young Aeta mountain girl.

After evading her pursuers, the girl leads the wounded police officer to a cave full of skeletons and remnants of World War II. She finds a vintage Japanese bolt-action rifle known as Arisaka, and decides to exact justice for the Aeta family gunned down by her pursuers.

She takes quick revenge and plans to go back to the lowlands. On the way, she sees a marker indicating that this was the road where hundreds went on survival march in the last world war. It is an irony that her own life has been reduced into a survival trek to freedom long after the war is over.

One wonders what will be her fate. She was trained to pursue and get rid of the enemy, but what if the enemy is within the system? Then she limps on the road to deliverance.

To be sure, the lead actors deliver. The Aeta girl named Sheila Mae Romualdo was a revelation as she went through a transformation, from an innocent mountain girl to an anguished native seeing her family die from bullet wounds, and later in a fire.

The police officer of Mon Confiado was well defined, as he remained wicked and unforgiving, but delivering his lines within the beat and rhythm of the director’s cinematic vision. It was not just physical acting, but finding life in the cadenced, poetic lines of the scriptwriter, Anton Santamaria.

Mon Confiado, Mikhail Red and Maja Salvador during premiere night (Studio photo)

But the biggest revelation was the police officer of Maja Salvador, as Maja Mariano. She had very few lines to deliver, but her portrayal was 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 was 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 a 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 after surviving the pandemic and three strong typhoons, including Typhoon Rolly.

‘In a way,’ said Red, ‘the film let out my inner anger at the way people dealt with the crisis’

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 at the way people dealt with the crisis.”

He stopped short of saying that the government is trying to solve problems the military way, with no consideration for the health components.

In a way, the film is reminiscent of one of his first works, Birdshot, which also had police rookies doing everything to hide a crime. And then again, you saw 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 was no clue to how the film would end. You saw frames of countryside images, most of them starkly without music. Teresa Barrozo’s music was spare and really effective. It didn’t romanticize the rural scenes. Instead, there was a natural ebb and flow: bird sounds from the forest, the rush of water from the river, and beautiful sunrise and sunset.

The rural setting of Birdshot makes you think the film is 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 provides 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 associated with anti-drug operations and anti-insurgency missions.

In some ways, Red echoes the early visions of filmmakers Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal

In Birdshot, director Red made a big but subtle statement on police corruption in the rural areas. In some ways, Red echoes the early visions of filmmakers Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal.

For instance, one’s interest in Mikhail Red’s Neomanila stems from a curiosity about how a millennial filmmaker can portray the city’s dark side.

Manila as the common destination of 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 found yourself thoroughly involved with the characters, as though they inhabit your neighborhood milieu.

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 in cahoots with lawbreakers. In the eyes of Red, Manila is where you can retell stories, from the most noble, to those in 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 the 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 sociology in the Philippine setting.

Looking back on the pre-pandemic, Red has made forays into the horror genre in Eerie and the zombie film, Block Z. Eerie was a milestone for Red, as the film earned P40 million in its first four days of screening.

Mikhail Red and Charo Santos on the set of his horror blockbuster, ‘Eerie’

Indie directors have been used to lukewarm receptions at the box office, even as they get one good review after another, and are later vindicated in filmfests abroad.

Indie directors have been used to lukewarm receptions at the box office, even as they are later vindicated in filmfests abroad

That Eerie was reviewed by critics of consequence was one thing, but horror film fans following suit was another, making their 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 is accepted by mainstream audiences. We have so many cases of Rated A and B films languishing in the box office, enough for one director to cry for help, saying it’s time the government intervened and found a solution.

Eerie, however, was made of sterner stuff, and proved that a well-made film will make sense not just with reviewers, but also with the mass audiences. It ended up as a truly landmark horror film accepted by different audience segments, from the millennials to the post-millennials. After a long, long time, you saw a film that truly scared 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 patterns.

His last pre-pandemic output was a zombie film with a Philippine setting. It was set in a typical Philippine campus, with recognizable characters from strict school officials to repressed librarians and barkada, from 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 broke out, and both students and teachers and school heads had 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.

As early as age 15, when he studied under Marilou Diaz-Abaya, he would think about doing zombie films using ketchup as make-believe blood

It was nothing totally new to him, because as early as age 15, when he studied under Marilou Diaz-Abaya, he would think about 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 was 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 were so many things to attend to, from working on rapport with the cast and 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 couldn’t be helped, that there were lots of stunts and lots of speed running, a lot of screaming and gore.”

Red said the horror film was a battle for 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 make 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 had very good exercises in the visual language. Then you worked with your actors and made sure they gel with their characters and looked believable, especially in their argument scenes. It was a test of concentration to be able to deliver lines facing a lighting crew. Then you would figure out that 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 making sure your vision is articulated. It is also a test of dynamics working with young, inexperienced actors compared to seasoned ones. You have to enjoy the process to survive the tiresome pre- and post-production phases of the film.

Red had a memorable year before the pandemic. He made his first studio blockbuster, he acquired his first car and first condo, he found his first Hollywood connection, he did his first Netflix original film and first HBO series.

‘I treat every project as an opportunity to learn, and I make sure I am doing something new and enjoying the process’

A college drop-out by choice, Red is only 29, and the passion to do good movies still consumes him. “In the beginning, it was just a hobby, and I figured that since I dropped my studies to focus on filmmaking, I had no choice but to make a career out of it and to make sure it works for me. 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 despite strict health protocols, and he survived the typhoons that threatened to wreak havoc on the project.

But after watching Arasaka, you know where Red’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 the policewoman, in the same place 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.”

It is Red’s way of fusing the chaotic present and historic past together.

Mikhail Red and the author in the first Manila screening of the Oscar winner ‘Parasite’

(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.)

Read more:

The anger and humanity of my ‘kumpare,’ Lino Brocka

John Arcilla: ‘For now, I want to remember the smiles’

Dennis Trillo’s evolution: Various roles, one balanced life

About author


He’s a freelance journalist who loves the opera, classical music and concerts, and who has had the privilege of meeting many of these artists of the performing arts and forging enviable friendships with them. Recently he’s been drawing readers to his poems in Facebook, getting known as the ‘Bard of Facebook.’

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