Filmart: Filipino Wunderkind Director Mikhail Red on Why His Latest Thriller Is a Cautionary Tale

Mikhail Red-Publicity-H 2019

The 27-year-old filmmaker explains the pitch behind his seventh feature 'The Grandstand,' which is inspired by the real-life 2010 Manila hostage tragedy.

Mikhail Red made his directorial debut at age 21 with Rekorder (2013), a drama about a Filipino man making his living secretly recording movies in cinemas for an underground piracy ring. Now 27, Red is just the sort of in-demand, rising star director whose business interests could be hard hit by that kind of racket.

Red's acclaimed follow-up feature, 2016's Birdshot — a police procedural mixed with a coming-of-age drama — was the Philippines' official submission for the best foreign language film Oscar and became the first Filipino film released worldwide by Netflix. Two critically well-received features have followed — political thriller Neomanila (2017) and horror vehicle Eerie (2018).

The son of the pioneer of Filipino independent cinema, Raymond Red, Mikhail Red grew up in the world of film and made his first short at age 15. After his recent genre filmmaking forays, Red is presenting, at this year's Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF), The Grandstand, a cinematic exploration of the real-life 2010 hostage crisis that took place at the Quirino Grandstand in Manila. Still somewhat politically sensitive, the events unfolded when disgruntled former police officer Rolando Mendoza hijacked a tour bus full of Hong Kong tourists, forcing a nine-hour standoff that turned tragic, resulting in the death of eight civilians, while also triggering a diplomatic row between Hong Kong, the Philippines and China. Red says he hopes his film will be something like the Philippines' own United 93, directed by Paul Greengrass.

On the eve of HAF, Red spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about confronting past errors, filmmaking for developing world audiences and the weight and legacy of his family name.  

The 2010 Manila Hostage Crisis was a traumatic incident for both the people of Hong Kong and the Philippines. What inspired you to attempt a film about it in The Grandstand?

I saw the events at the Grandstand unfold live on TV. I was a young student then and was deeply disturbed as I witnessed a mishandled situation slowly collapse and worsen like a train wreck in slow motion. But beyond the tragedy, the politicizing, the countless inquiries, condemnation and casting of blame, I saw a story about the triumph of the human spirit at the center of it  — the story of the survivors who were simply caught in the crossfire. Their unrelenting courage and struggle for survival despite being victims of a system that failed them is a story that I feel needs to be retold, especially to a new generation who probably never heard of the events at the Grandstand. It also serves as a reminder that history can repeat itself if we do not confront the sins of the past — we cannot keep the truth hostage. That was almost 10 years ago, and I feel like the 10-year anniversary of the incident is the best time to retell such a difficult story. 

How much research have you done for The Grandstand? Did you talk to the people involved — friends and family of Rolando Mendoza or survivors from Hong Kong?

Right now we are still at the very early stages of development. My producer is securing interviews with some local media personalities and journalists, while our writer has begun her own independent research. We also plan to contact some of the survivors living in Hong Kong and perhaps arrange an interview. It is challenging as an independent filmmaker because of all the legal hurdles and clearances, that's why we are also in search of a reliable studio to partner with in order to help us with the paperwork and logistics. In reality, most of the minutes of the hostage crisis have already been thoroughly documented because it was such a media sensation. There have also been countless documentaries that have comprehensive breakdowns of the events at the Grandstand. A lot of information on the event is readily available. For this project, I do not plan to dwell on the aftermath and politics; instead we plan to focus on the moments of the fateful day itself, an attempt to be as objective as possible when depicting these tragic and sensitive events. 

Despite the animosity resulting from the hostage tragedy and the travel alert issued by the Hong Kong government for the Philippines — which lasted four years after the crisis — the people of Hong Kong and the Philippines have had a close relationship for decades. So many Filipinos come to work in Hong Kong and they are an indispensable part of the local economy. Do you hope for The Grandstand to heal the wound caused by the hostage crisis; or alternatively, are you concerned that it might reopen old wounds?

It is never our intention as storytellers to create more division or animosity. We hope that an objective view and the proper truthful tone and treatment of the story can evoke a remorseful emotion rather than ire. I hope we remember, focus on and are inspired by the people who do matter — the victims and survivors. We want to make a United 93, Hotel Mumbai or 22 July of the Philippines.

The political landscape in the Philippines has changed since 2010, especially with President Rodrigo Duterte coming into power. Do you intend for The Grandstand to serve as a cautionary tale?

The Grandstand is a story of the vicious parallels between the breakdown of a man and the breakdown of society, resulting in more victims caught in the chaos. It is indeed a cautionary tale, a similar event can happen again anytime if we refuse to confront our past errors and correct bureaucratic cancers that have long been embedded in our developing country.

Have you encountered any political, diplomatic or police interference during the making of The Grandstand?

Nothing so far, since we are in the very early stages of development and are still exploring the material. We did see mixed reactions on social media when our project was announced. We attempt to tread lightly on these issues and try to create a film that is truthful, fair and objective.

What has been the biggest challenge during the creative process of The Grandstand so far?

The hardest struggle is facing the challenging question of whether this film should even be made. Do we tell this story to the new generation hoping it acts as a cautionary tale and forces us to correct fundamental problems in Philippine society? Or do we fear the backlash and the controversy and let the world forget about that tragic day? It is a difficult question, but in time, as we go through pitches and as the material evolves, I am hopeful we will find our answer.

You came from a filmmaking family, and after presenting your award-winning debut feature Rekorder at the age of 21, you have been seen as a filmmaking wunderkind. Does the pressure of living up to the family name and sustaining the reputation of being a filmmaking prodigy affect you? 

I have slowly learned to enjoy the process and not put myself in a box, constantly leaving my comfort zone when choosing new material to develop. With every greenlit project, I make sure I learn something new or try something new, always exploring the medium and pushing my limits and my craft. I am now in the process of making different kinds of films this year — some are very personal passion projects, others are studio genre and international co-productions.

You have a number of other announced projects in the pipeline, including Block Z and Dead Kids. How are they coming along?

I'm working on Dead Kids with Globe Studios (a Philippine production house owned by telecom company Globe Telecom). It's a youth kidnap thriller and black comedy. It's about high school classmates who exact vigilante justice and plan an amateurish kidnap plot, targeting the school alpha jock who is the son of a narco politician.

I'm also working again with Star Cinema, the biggest studio outfit in the Philippines and the studio behind my fourth film Eerie. We are now working on a Zombie epic titled Block Z. It's about trapped medical students trying to survive a zombie outbreak inside a quarantined university. I am keeping busy.