Director Mikhail Red on revenge-thriller ‘Arisaka’: “To survive in a predatory world you must grow fangs”

Ahead of his new film’s Netflix premiere, the Filipino filmmaker talks genre movies, shooting in the pandemic and how gaming influences his process

Genre movies have been Mikhail Red’s preferred playground ever since the Filipino director was a teenager with a camcorder, self-producing zombie movies and using ketchup for blood.

His latest is Arisaka, a Western thriller premiering on Netflix today (December 9) and Red’s latest step to realising a career-long vision: that of the intelligent genre piece as a vehicle for social commentary.

Arisaka stars Maja Salvador as embattled policewoman Mariano, part of a security escort for a vital witness testifying against Southern Luzon gangsters and their political backers. But the convoy is ambushed and the witness killed. Mariano survives and escapes into the same jungle where the Bataan Death March of 1942 took place. Hunted by crooked cops, Mariano’s hope of survival flags until she’s taken in by a family from the local Aeta tribe.

Loosely based on the 2013 Atimonan massacre, in which 13 people were killed in a shootout in the Quezon province, Arisaka draws inspiration from the traditional Western and plays with revenge tropes, even as it takes a closer look at how indigenous communities routinely suffer social and economic marginalisation. The movie’s title is a reference to the Arisaka family of bolt-action rifles: standard issue guns for the Imperial Japanese Army in the Pacific theatre that later occupied the Philippines.

NME caught up with Red just as he was wrapping up shooting for HBO’s fantasy series Halfworlds and knee-deep in post-production for Arisaka. Read on for a conversation about the tug-of-war between optimism and nihilism in Red’s movies and how being a gamer influences his process.

You’ve declared that you put so much of yourself into filmmaking that you get emotionally and physically exhausted. Have you since found ways to sustain your energy?

“Making movies is exhausting and emotionally draining. You really need stamina. In my early years everything was just me but eventually projects got bigger and I learned to delegate. I see my job now as making sure everything is unified. Sometimes it gets tiring juggling so many projects but if your objectives and reasons are clear, that it’s not just for the sake of being called a ‘filmmaker’, then it’s OK.”

HBO’s Halfworlds was shot in the city while Arisaka was mostly in the province, but both were full-on productions during the 2020 pandemic. We assume there were plenty of challenges to your workflow?

Arisaka was my first experience with a full pandemic production bubble. Due to COVID, industry people have since been forced to accept a strict 12-hours filming rule. It’s a grind, I must admit. When I started out I really couldn’t estimate how long a scene would take to set-up and shoot. ‘Oh, gunfights? Those’ll be fast!’ But now, especially with Arisaka, I realised my energy doesn’t hold up to week-long one-scene shoots.”

Arisaka movie Mikhail Red interview Maja Salvador Netflix
Maja Salvador in ‘Arisaka’. Credit: Ten17P Studios

You have a specific method for crafting a film’s plot: you assemble a story out of real life events that might not be related.

“It’s years of news and story fragments and I archive them all in my mental trunk. Later on, I might meet an interesting person or see something where I might take the story and it gets pieced together. One day, after accumulating all these fragments, I may be in the shower and it all just snaps together. So it’s important to incubate and it’s always been a visual process to me. I’m such a mess. Nothing’s written down and it’s all just floating in my head. I’m the type that when the deadline comes it’s only then that I start to write anything down. Personally, I don’t recommend this!”

What was assembling those fragments like for Arisaka?

“Part of Arisaka is how the heroine is going through repetitive phases of violence and historical oppression, like her character’s own Via Dolorosa. A part of the film is about rebellion and insurrection and the Stations of the Cross illustrate benchmark events in her own survival story.”

“There’s a part of me that’s very nihilistic and that it is always survival of the fittest… Yet, I struggle with that because like [my] female heroes, something inside me says we can do better”

The female heroes in your movies seem to be connected by a deep resentment. Emotions from repeating cruelty clash with the need to evolve beyond one’s moral code to live. There’s that sentiment that such a change might break the violent cycle – but you might not like what you become?

“That is correct, especially with the question in Arisaka of how to free yourself from vicious patterns. In a sense, there are still invaders in our own ranks as Filipinos, so are we really free? But I always put a feminine, usually innocent character whose point of view is that we can co-exist, even as she is oppressed by the world.

“There’s a part of me that’s very nihilistic and that it is always survival of the fittest. Even in [Red’s 2016 movie and breakout feature] Birdshot the world is very rapacious, hungry. There’s a recurring food chain motif in my movies and in order to survive a predatory world you must grow fangs. Yet, I struggle with that because like [my] female heroes, something inside me says we can do better.”

Arisaka movie Mikhail Red interview Maja Salvador Netflix
Maja Salvador and Shella Mae Romulado in ‘Arisaka’. Credit: Ten17P Studios

You’ve built a reputation on a diverse range of genre work. Are you motivated to hop through these tropes by something deeper, or just a fun-seeking impulse?

“I do like switching genres and I hope my filmography feels diverse enough! I also feel you really have to look close at your patterns to realise what you’re doing. It has something to do I think with how I am a longtime gamer. Like how I want to go through this story using another role-playing game ‘build’. I am always curious about other points of view.”

As an avid gamer, does assembling a team with balanced skills to complete missions also figure in your directing?

“It’s made me conscious of filmmaking as an industry. In video games you have a main character that’s optimal, but you also have a ‘home-brewed build’ that you experiment with. I tend to do both in my films. I say: be aware of play style.”

Arisaka is now streaming on Netflix

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