‘Arisaka’: Begins Well, But Gets Lost on the Bataan Death March Trail ⭐️⭐️

The film “Arisaka” attempts to combine the demons of the past with the current corruption in the Philippines, but while it begins with some wonderful atmospheric shots (by cinematographer Mycko David), the film fails to coherently tie together the sorrows of World War II and the terror of contemporary sociopolitical situations.

Arisaka (有坂銃) is a Japanese word for the kind of firearms the Japanese invaders of the Philippines used. This military bold-action service rifle was used from about 1897 until the end of World War II. The name it taken from the surname of the person who designed it, Arisaka Nariakira (有坂 成章) but that officer of the Japanese Imperial Army died in 1915, long before the invasion of the Philippine. However, he was active during the time of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). 

According to Merriam-Webster, an Arisaka is: “any of a series of bolt-action rifles of about . 30 caliber that were standard issue to Japanese forces from about 1905 until 1945.”

Early on in the film “Arisaka,” one of the men on a protection detail motorcade of three black SUVs tells the only woman officer, Mariano (Maja Salvador), that his grandfather was a Bataan Death March survivor. He claims the marchers had “no food, no water, while the Japanese soldiers tortured them.”

The Bataan Death March took place in April 1942. The US had entered the war in 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7. The Philippines at the time was under the rule of the United States, a prize won during the Spanish American War and kept by quashing their independence movement.  According to Britannica, about 66,000 Filipinos and 10,000 “Americans” walked 66 miles from Mariveles (the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula) to San Fernando, then were taken in boxcars to Capas. From there, they walked 77 miles (11 km) to a former Philippine Army training center, Camp O’Donnell. The march lasted 5-10 days, depending upon where the POWs joined in.

How did his grandfather survive? “He pretended to be dead and when no one was looking, he rolled over a cliff.” His grandfather was badly wounded but he survived.  Not everyone will survive from this trip. 

The police officers are protecting Vice Mayor Rosales (Archi Adamos) who is going to testify against government corruption. The motorcade is ambushed by corrupt police officers, but Mariano manages to survive. When the corrupt police return, they discover Mariano,  who then escapes into the same jungle where the Bataan Death March passed. While one corrupt cop believes that “the forest will eat her alive,” their leader wants to be sure no witnesses are left and so the hunt begins.

As you might guess from the name of the film, Mariano will stumble upon an Arisaka but she also comes across a family of indigenous people. She meets a young girl, Nawi (Shella Mae Romualdo) who warns her of the approach of her fellow law enforcement. Nawi takes her deep into the forest, to a hut where her father (Martin Felecia), mother (Teresita Cosme) and sister (Drusilla Guiao) live. Nawi’s  parents warn her, “we are  here deep in the forest so we can be far away from all the cruelty,” but Nawi replies, “It’s not wrong to help.” Yet her parents remind her that you must know “the consequences of your act.”  

There will be consequences, not only for Nawi, but also for Mariano who recalls some questionable things she had witnessed before she began her ill-fated motorcade duty.  

Director Mikhail Red could have tightened up the action and the staging for one climatic confrontation seems contrived. Writer Anton Santamaria (story by Red) fails to weave the threads of contemporary political corruption, past horrific wartime hardship and the plight of the indigenous people into a cohesive tapestry. Red with cinematographer David isn’t able to patch this threadbare cloth. There are lingering images, but nothing moved me although for the people in the Philippines, there is undoubtedly more emotional depth due to history both distant and more recent. 

The Japanese Imperial Army troops are long gone, but the treachery of men with guns is not. For people in the Philippines, “Arisaka” is not just about the events of the distant past, but also about more recent military-like mass murders: The Atimonan Massacre. Antimonan is a Municipality (“an urban political unit having corporate status and usually powers of self-government” according to Merriam-Webster) on the eastern shore of province of Quezon. As of 2020, it has a population of 64,260 people.

In the Atimonan Massacre, 12 police officers allegedly killed 13 men at a checkpoint along the Maharlika Highway on 6 January 2013. 

With a real massacre and its legal fallout still wearing uneasily on the people of Quezon and in the Philippines, undoubtedly “Arisaka” will elicit a more emotional response to those touched by the corruption and the tragic murders. Yet “Arisaka” attempts to say too much to bring much enlightenment or an emotional catharsis for such people. The Arisaka was distracting because I began thinking about technical details of humidity and rust and metal that took me out of the film. For an outside audience looking in, “Arisaka” is a threadbare survival film from the Philippines. In Tagalog and Filipino with English subtitles. “Arisaka”make its world premiere at the 34th Tokyo International Film Festival in November 2021. The film was part of the 2022 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. 

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