Cycles of violence and historical oppression lie at the heart of Arisaka, essentially a revenge thriller dressed up with elements of social commentary from wunderkind director Mikhail Red, premiering in competition at Tokyo. A routine prisoner transport turns into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse between a police officer and her crooked cohorts in a pursuit that follows the route on which 30,000 Filipinos died on another prisoner transport during World War II.
Shooting during the pandemic, the prolific director mixes up his usual mayhem-based routine by marrying genre action with issues of inherited trauma and the marginalization of native peoples — unfortunately, to only moderate effect. When the film plays in the genre sandbox, it’s at its most effective, and is likely to garner some attention in light of the recent spate of girl-assassin revenge movies to flood screens: The Protégé, Gunpowder Milkshake, Kate, Jolt and their ilk.
Another from the girl-revenge subgenre, but a good one.
On top of that, given Red’s existing place on streaming services — he’s had success with Netflix’s Dead Kids and HBO Asia’s Halfworlds — streamers are likely to take an interest in Arisaka. But the film could also find a theatrical life given its big-screen visuals and better than respectable action pacing. The presence of multimedia superstar Maja Salvador can’t hurt.
Red and writer Anton Santamaria waste no time in getting the ball rolling. National police service office Mariano (Salvador) is part an escort convoy transporting a vice mayor (Archi Adamos) down what must be the Philippines’ most desolate road to testify against a cabal of corrupt officials. They’re ambushed by a quartet of rotten cops intending to silence the witness, but Mariano survives and manages to escape with the evidence (miraculously, no one looks under the car).
She heads into the jungle that witnessed the brutal Bataan Death March in 1942. A chase ensues, which is intensified once gangster boss Sonny (Mon Confiado) shows up and starts ordering around his right hand, Torejon (Art Acuña, familiar to Western audiences for his supporting role in last year’s goofy WGN action series Almost Paradise), and eliminating any random witnesses.
When Arisaka cleaves to its genre roots it’s an effective, tight thriller with some graceful and economical action sequences, underpinned by a nicely physical performance from Salvador. And while it may be a bit on the thin side, the alignment of the legacy of Bataan and the fact of violence still erupting in the forest is a touch that puts some meat on the film’s bones, though not quite enough. Also highlighting the themes that Red and Santamaria aim to explore is an indigenous Aeta girl (Shella Mae Romulado), Nawi, who comes to the wounded Mariano’s rescue. She’s from a tribe that lives in the Bataan forests, the same tribe that one of Mariano’s colleagues berated and scorned earlier on.
The messages aren’t subtle, and the awkward friendship between Nawi and Mariano is set up to explore the deeper traumas inflicted on Bataan and the indigenous people, but it’s too sketchily written to carry the weight the subject demands. The symbols aren’t subtle either, among them a rifle left behind after World War II that Nawi leads Mariano to (it’s called an Arisaka), and Sonny’s uber-shady viciousness as simply another iteration of historical injustice. There’s also more than a whiff of “noble savagery” on display as relates to Nawi’s family that’s more of a distraction than a deep thought.
Needless to say, Sonny, Torejon and their crew eventually track Mariano and Nawi down and unleash all kinds of violence, which puts Arisaka on its revenge thriller path and keeps it there until its surprisingly graceful ending. Cinematographer Mycko David’s widescreen lensing is another of the film’s highlights, from frame one creating an atmosphere where ugliness lingers just beneath the misty hills. And despite a final confrontation that feels out of character, when Mariano finally gets on her revenge horse, Arisaka radiates an undeniable energy. The film could have used a little more of it.