movie reviews

‘Arisaka’ review: Turning an unforgettable tragedy into a forgettable story

Jason Tan Liwag
‘Arisaka’ review: Turning an unforgettable tragedy into a forgettable story

ARISAKA. Maja Salvador leads the cast for 'Arisaka.'


'Arisaka' is proof that well-made and well-meaning films don't equate to good films

Spoilers ahead.

In the middle of a storm, a convoy transports a politician ready to expose a high-profile narcos list through the roads where the Bataan Death March occurred.

Contemplating the significance of space, one of them talks about how his grandfather survived the infamous event: by pretending to be dead and rolling off of a cliff when no one was looking. They then ask the only female officer on the team, Mariano (Maja Salvador), if she thinks she can survive the same hundred-kilometer journey.

Before she can answer, something shifts: the caravan stops. Rolling down his windows to check what is happening, the captain is gunned down. Realizing this is an ambush, Mariano covers the politician while bullets pierce through the vehicle. Before she faints, Mariano is instructed by the politician to protect his phone. When she wakes, she opens the shattered device and begins committing the evidence to her memory, her mind serving as the only proof of injustice. In the hopes of surviving, she retraces the route of those who escaped the Bataan Death March to deliver the evidence to the correct authorities.

It is easy to see Arisaka as a spiritual successor to Red’s acclaimed film Birdshot. Both films explore cycles of violence and inherited forms of oppression, and how these are (unfortunately) inevitable parts of coming-of-age in the Philippines. In the past, Red has used the brutality and rigidity of the urban space to infiltrate and corrupt the tenderness and innocence of the countryside. History haunts the present — literally and figuratively — and trauma manifests as a supernatural force, providing an opportunity to survive and learn if one is able to listen.

At first glance, Arisaka is beautiful. Red’s long-time collaboration with cinematographer Mycko David has resulted in a visual signature and mood specific to the director. There is something suffocatingly bleak in Red’s films that complements the stories and themes he explores. But after some time, it becomes increasingly hollow – stunning in a clinical way. 

In his prior films, Red builds up tension by displaying the dissonance between a characters’ principles and practices, causing the scenes later on in the film to explode, capping off their fundamental disagreement in philosophies with violence and action. In essence, the action is intertwined with characters and their development, at times even catalyzing the inner transformation by manifesting it outward.

But Arisaka seems less like a march towards salvation and more like an extended detour towards a dead end.

It is clear that Red wants us to root for Mariano. Why wouldn’t we? We see her struggle physically, guided only by her willpower and her moral imperative. But her character begins where she ends: her pain omnipresent but the reasons for her persistence absent. On a basal level, the film is a survivalist piece that surprisingly ignores common sense and the laws of the human body. Mariano gets shot and stabbed in the gut, yet manages to run and fight even after the adrenaline that acts as nature’s painkiller dies down. 

Salvador does her best to add color to every ragged breath and make every limp along the lonely road believable, but only as far as the script allows her to expand. But Mariano’s survival seems necessary by mere virtue of existence, her plot armor showing within the first 10 minutes of the film. There is little reason to emotionally invest in the character, let alone root for her to make it to the end.

But more than that, Red and screenwriter Anton Santamaria (Buybust) seem to fundamentally misunderstand how resourceful and intelligent corrupt officials can be. When the leader of the hunt, Sonny (Mon Confiado), kills an Aeta family and burns down their home for harboring Mariano, one would think they do this to draw her out; knowledgeable that her principles would have her running to try and save the family. But instead, it uses these deaths as an elaborate set piece for dramatic effect that leads to nowhere rather than as an important device to move the story forward.

The most interesting characters are the ones who struggle within the gray areas. Red makes an inspired decision by going against type and assigning Art Acuña the role of Torejon: a police officer reckoning with his morality after years of participating in its violent underbelly. In the sprawling forests and expansive mountains, Torejon begins to contemplate the meaning of his actions and inactions. Acuña wordlessly embodies a shift in ideology in each scene and it is a road that leads to more substantial rewards had it been pursued (I’d argue the character would make a more interesting lead). But Red neither gives Acuña the time to develop his character nor the material to build it into something more than a mere suggestion.

Revenge thrillers hinge on this emotional connection with characters: violence becomes a means of enacting justice to address this “pinch.” But in the process of enacting revenge, characters must sacrifice something: an ideology, a person, maybe even self-perception they are protecting. These become the ethical tentpoles which the film teeters between. In the absence of these emotional connections, the violence in Arisaka doesn’t have weight, the scenes have no stakes, and the ethical questions become muddled.

When the film treats loss of life senselessly, it minimizes not only the suffering at the hands of corrupt structures but also of those who suffered through the Bataan Death March. What results is work that shoehorns social commentary and advocacy into its script for relevance, using these as embellishments rather than as topics that must be explored and unearthed humanely.

Arisaka is proof that well-made and well-meaning films don’t equate to good films. Genre has been a way to present to audiences structures that they’re familiar with, and it’s a powerful tool to subvert or satisfy audience expectation. But Red finds himself in limbo: between “elevating” the story and adhering to a classical approach. By refusing to commit to either direction, we get a film that seems to be for no one, that seems to go nowhere. In the end, Arisaka turns an unforgettable tragedy into a forgettable story. – 

Jason Tan Liwag

Jason Tan Liwag is an openly gay scientist, actor, and writer. As a film critic, he is an alumnus of the IFFR Young Critics Programme 2021, the FEFF Film Campus 2021, the Yamagata Film Criticism Workshop 2021, and the CINELAB Workshop 2020 and has served as a jury member for film festivals locally and internationally.