BuyBust on the Notorious War on Drugs: A Deeper Look at a Cliche Field Popular Action Genre
Gigi Javier Alfonso
How can critics give their time to watch an action film that carries all the usual slam-bang, shoot-to-kill, slash-oozing-blood, tumbling-blasts-breaking glass scenes?
When it wants to say something more than the slam-bang- shoot-kill-slash-oozing blood-tumbling-blasts-breaking glass scenes cliches. When the narrative shows the unnerving and ghastly mindset of people in authority penetrating with guns and rhythmically moving in with a quiet resolve through the tagged drug-infested community. It is a neighborhood with a suffocating maze of alleys, with no exits, packed with mixed residents who are uncaring, silent, frightened, and forced accomplices to a well-entrenched drug network. The team has been gelled with the thought that each one protects the other and was inspired by a well-orchestrated flagship program by the top authorities carrying the battle cry, to use guns and violence to fight the “War on Drugs”. This is what the film is all about. And it gives us a mindful hope that popular genres may be taken as serious works as it inserts itself to thicken the discourse with its social commentary.
BuyBust bloodily splashes on our faces chaos, horror, senselessness, madness, and ridiculousness, bringing us into the absurd. It shows how much such a phenomenon turns all those who are part of the lurid scenario – the police, the criminals, the bystanders, the passersby, the concerned are all turned into horrible creatures swarmed into a mob stripped of dignity and reason. And then silence creeps into the screen, allowing the viewers to breathe, a pause. Then, in the last struggle, we hear what is blurted out in a whisper, the question mark and exclamation point. “Nanlaban ang suspect”. That makes BuyBust worth watching.
BuyBust aptly directed by action filmmaker, Erik Matti, brings all the players in a curt and fluid exposition phase, introducing the good guys and gals and the manipulative bad guys wanting to reduce all into non-thinking pawns. Nonie Buencamino as Director Alvarez and Lao Rodriguez as Rudy de la Cruz interrogate drug peddler, Teban, brilliantly played with a subtle touch of humor by Alex Calleja. Then a quick cut to the anti-drug elite force camp and barracks to present the team. The mood is then set in the dark streets of Manila and a move to the busy area where exchanges of commodities of all sorts happen. This is the scene where Teban expects the appearance of his big-time drug contact, Biggie Chen, to fulfil the exchange. Then the waiting. To the usual action fans this may be dragging, but Matti risks this to mount a flowing narrative worthy of engagement. Here, the seeming bad and good are presented in the muddling of the delineation, as the story moves forward.
The big points going for BuyBust are the creative and technical virtuosity of director of photography Neil Bion, with his textured cinematography capturing the grit, trash, flames, trapped waters, dripping rain, slashing bullets, crashing glass, and the numerous high points of the performances of the ensemble, as they turn into unfeeling and unthinking thugs. This well-executed cinematography is grounded on a comprehensive and meticulously detailed production design by Michael Espanol and Roma Regala. And for all these to be meshed into a meaningful and bold tapestry of images, the editing of Jay Halili worked. Whannie Dallosa and Steven Vesagas, brought to the fore the sound designers’ creative manipulation of different levels and intensity of sound, creating the film’s three dimensionality and completing the images in our minds. The music by Malek Lopez and Erwin Romulo with its pivotal counterpoints bring the atmosphere of satire in between the thriller, drama, and tragedy. All these excellent elements have contributed to the seamless direction of Matti, as he successfully knitted this organic piece of creative work.
The other positive notes of this film are touches of resistance that crumbles the mainstream dictum of an action film, as Matti, in his story, presents the main protagonist Nina Manigan, well-played by Anne Curtis, an actress usually identified with romantic films, a woman, slim and lacking muscles, showing that stamina and not stark brawn but critical and quick thinking carries one through this almost unbelievable but plausible series of non-stop hurdles, difficulties, and insurmountable challenges. Curtis embraced the role of Manigan, making her the calloused, jaded, and angry killing-machine. The caring head of the elite squad Bernie Lacson, who is a mild-mannered leader, is portrayed convincingly by Victor Neri, and his bringing a wife, in this case Aida, played by Sheenly Gener, into the one’s team for combat are touches of the unusual, as they are tasked to bring behind bars the powerful Biggie Chen, a strong supporting actor performance by Arjo Atayde.
BuyBust, however, leaves me bothered and cloaked in sadness, as I read into the images of the women in it. The gun-totting women and the need for them to be armed and to be killers without hesitation. Fear and guilt are precisely what drive men who are obsessed and have romance with violence, and it is against these that we protest against. The shifting of the lens that I used for this film brings me hope that that is precisely the point of the film. The abuse of power and the calls for violence to solve abuse only strengthens the chains that bind us into the culture of impunity that plague us today.
BuyBust: Three Contexts, Two Angles
Patrick F. Campos
Erik Matti’s BuyBust is his most ambitious and most technically daring work yet. Known for his visual inventiveness and visceral storytelling, Matti directs this high-energy action spectacle with virtuosity, orchestrating the cinematography, production design, editing, sound design, and musical score to deliver an intense somatic experience for the spectator. A way to appreciate the film is to consider it as a genre movie that utilizes formal conventions and pushes the boundaries of these conventions to redefine the mold itself.
BuyBust is a significant contribution to the action genre that is reemerging both in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia. The bakbakan had for some time disappeared from the local cinematic landscape, after being the most prolific genre for several decades in the postwar period. By the early 2000s, less than a handful of action films were being produced annually, and they no longer made profit at the box-office.
Two factors have contributed to the demise of the bakbakan, which are pertinent to this review. First was the growing cost of producing celluloid movies beginning in the 1990s, which impacted action movies that were expensive to make. The situation altered moviegoing patterns, with melodramas and romances overtaking bakbakan in number of production and amount of gross receipts. Second was the spectacularization of post-9/11, CGI-reliant, Hollywood action and adventure movies, which flooded Philippine screens and appealed to those who could afford to watch in the theaters. The cycle of these event movies, typified by the Marvel franchise, continues to roll and discourage efforts to make action spectacles in the country.
During this period, East Asian cinemas, i.e., the cinemas of Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and mainland China, invested much in the action movie genre, expanding the visual breadth of gangster and martial arts films and deepening their narrative stakes to comment on history and geopolitics. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, the bakbakan continued to unfold on free-access television; the long-running and top-rating Ang Pronbinsyano (2015 to present) is the latest incarnation of this vernacular form.
Recently, however, with advancements in technology, the networking of media markets, and the multiplication of distribution and exhibition platforms, “global” action movies have begun to come out of Southeast Asia, such as Bay Rong (2009), Bitcoin Heist (2016), and Furie (2019) from Vietnam; Jailbreak (2017) and The Prey (2018) from Cambodia; Bangkok Assassins (2011), Headshot (2011), The Protector 2 (2013), and Vengeance of an Assassin (2015) from Thailand; Polis Evo (2015), Polis Evo 2 (2018), One Two Jaga (2018), Paskal (2018), and KL Special Force (2018) from Malaysia; Buffalo Boys (2018), a Singapore-Indonesia coproduction; and The Raid (2011), The Raid 2 (2014), Headshot (2016), and The Night Comes for Us (2018) from Indonesia.
In terms of form, BuyBust has a clear affinity with these films, alongside the Philippines’ Nilalang (2015), Neomanila (2017), Double Barrel (2017), We Will Not Die Tonight (2018), Maria (2019), and Matti’s On the Job (2013), which, with BuyBust, puts the director at the forefront of regional-global action films addressed not only to Filipinos but to an international audience, via commercial theatrical releases abroad and streaming platforms like Netflix.
Like On the Job before it which was released in the wake of the Napoles fiasco, BuyBust comments on the Filipino zeitgeist as much as it depicts it. Both these films locate Matti as a political filmmaker at the center of Philippine genre cinema, where a number of filmmakers allude to the social milieu but only a few offer frontal political critiques of the establishment. Such critiques can be found in non-genre films like Respeto (2017) and numerous short films by independent and student filmmakers beyond the mainstream.
Many allusions, references, and images in BuyBust, in fact, would be immediately apparent and meaningful only to Filipinos. For example, while international observers see the film as portraying the Duterte administration’s bloody war on drugs, the tattered cardboard hanging on the narrow path in the slums that leads to the death trap reads: “(B)IYAHENG (D)AANG (MA)TUWID,” the political slogan of Aquino, before Duterte, thereby implicating the previous administration in the current situation. The final words of protagonist Nina Manigan, ”Nanlaban ‘yong suspect,” would ring familiar to the Filipino audience, more than it would, if at all, to the non-Filipino viewer who relies on subtitles.
The film assumes a shared space with the viewers, the abject labyrinthine shantytown, Gracia de Maria, where the indiscriminate slaughter of drug peddlers, private army soldiers, police operatives, and civilians, takes place, functions as setting, texture, character, metonym, and metaphor. The film challenges its Filipino viewers to negotiate which elements are “real” and which are “fantastical,” even as the entire film appears incredible.
Such an approach, undergirded by genre filmmaking, can be contrasted with the Filipino miniseries, Amo (2018), which also tries to depict the social dynamics of Duterte’s drug war in the idiom of urban realist art fare. Amo is a slow-burn, meticulous in dramatizing the dealings of individual slum-dwellers, patient in its exposition that there are good cops and bad ones, and earnest in its argument that there is a systemic drug problem that cuts across all levels of society. Amo is an example of when “realism” fails to comment on the most urgent aspect of the drug war, which is that people, without due process, are being massacred, openly. The end result is its tacit claim that the drug war is not only necessary but inevitable.
BuyBust, on the other hand, is spectacular in its single-mindedness. From start to finish, it assaults our senses, desensitizes us with unrelenting violence, which at first excites and then, terrifyingly, numbs. This experiential arc may be seen as an analogy of our daily media experience of tokhang, which at first alarms us and then desensitizes us. Unlike Amo, BuyBust is didactic, explaining to us, through the words and actions of the slum-dwellers, the various motivations for participating or staying away from the drug trade; and from the perspective of the drug lord, the political economy not just of the drug trade but of tokhang itself. It is a didacticism that so-called artistic and realist works like Amo shy away from, because such films supposedly allow their viewers to make their own conclusions.
The closing shot of the aftermath of the massacre, accompanied by soundbites from radio news, signifies the film’s refusal to be ambivalent—no one wins in the drug war but the poor caught in the crossfires lose the most. It also comments on media disinformation and how it creates social dissonance. In a society where the death toll rises daily and operation tokhang is supported, even celebrated, by many educated citizens, BuyBust refuses the ambiguity that is the hallmark of the art film and issues an unmistakable statement about injustice that the bakbakan so eloquently speaks.
The crucial question we must ask of BuyBust, beyond the text, is: who is it speaking to? The fact that it is legible to an international audience as a kind of global action film locates it at a remove from the vernacular bakbakan and its mass-based crowd. The fact, too, that movie admission price and Netflix subscription invite mainly middle-class audiences indicates that BuyBust is accessible only to a particular sector.
The foregoing section argues that Matti sought to provide a range of explanations as to the poor’s involvement and non-involvement in the drug trade and the drug war, and he is never ambivalent about his stance on the matter. The danger lies in the movie’s representation of the underclass, which exhibits a degree of class prejudice that can so easily foster false recognition from the moviegoer, who may certainly be anti-tokhang but only vaguely pro-poor.
Though many of the townsfolk in the narrative are implicated in but are not complicit to organized crime, they are mostly shown as acting like a mindless mob. And the police operatives (alluding to the real-life situation) slaughter them without discrimination and without distinguishing the private army from the crowd. The poor are conceived as a concept, as the object of a statement rather than as subjects of the historical situation, and the film narrates from the perspective of state authority.
Such a representation symptomatizes the comfortable bourgeois perspective that thinks of the poor as an undifferentiated mass without individuality. And it is in danger of reaffirming existing biases that are anti-poor, especially in a setting of collective spectatorship that erupts in fervid cheers at each killing. I myself have twice witnessed the kinetic energy in the movie theater, where excited audible responses were being made by people who presumably already agree with Matti’s politics and need not be “taught” by him.
The question remains, then, how cinema—genre cinema, “indie” cinema, political cinema—should be made in the age of tokhang. BuyBust addresses this cinematic dilemma and is arguably the best one to have come from the mainstream, thus far. But for us who live with the daily realities of violence, the film cannot mean much without our critical intervention, without our debates on its merits and implications, and without our stepping up and stepping out and doing something beyond the entertainment.
BUYBUST (2018) Direction: Erik Matti; Screenplay: Anton C. Santamaria, et al.; Producer: Veronique del Rosario-Corpus, et al.; Music: Malek Lopez, et al.; Cinematography: Neil Bion; Editing: Jay Halili; Production Design: Michael N. Espanol, et al.; Cast: Anne Curtis, Brandon Vera, Victor Neri, Arjo Atayde, Levi Ignacio, Alex Calleja, Lao Rodriguez, Joross Gamboa, Ricky Pascua, Nonie Buencamino, Sheen Gener, AJ Muhlach, Mara Lopez. Running Time: 127 mins.
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