Anarchy in anti/pro-drug war film

Community News & Features Aug 24, 2018 at 4:15 pm

Buy-Bust-ReviewFILM REVIEW: BuyBust

By Ysh Cabana
The Philippine Reporter

Following a motley crew on a relentless pursuit of a narco-trafficking slum lord, writer-director Erik Matti’s most recent action flick paints a nihilistic vision of class society. “BuyBust” bursts into a bilious bloodbath due to an ongoing drug war where the characters play roles that aren’t exactly black and white.

Special operatives make no bones about the fact that besieging the big boss known as Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde) is decidedly a dangerous project. Here comes in the squad of Rico Yatco (Brandon Vera). Drug enforcement agent Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis) is stubborn but her sharpened skills prove better than those of her superiors including team leader Bernie Lacson (Victor Neri) alongside senior detectives Dela Cruz (Lao Rodriguez) and Alvarez (Nonie Buencamino).

The film begins when mid-level drug dealer Teban (Alex Calleja) agrees to help the agents get undercover in the heart of Manila. When the first attempt failed, the team had to re-group to meet the elusive Chen in Gracia ni Maria, a densely-populated settlement of “sinners and saints.” The plot is quite well trod with a familiar premise—an anti-drug operations in a gonzo world gone wrong.

Drug cartel activity is becoming the dominant story of contemporary films. There is “Miami Vice” (2006), the Chinese-Hong Kong thriller “Drug War” (2012), and more recently Canadian auteur Denise Villeneuve’s “Sicario” (2015). But to some extent Matti’s botched buy-bust narrative is comparable to the Indonesian martial arts action “The Raid” (2011) in terms of body count.

But unlike most police procedural movies, the screenplay does not try to thread the personal lives of the agents off-duty. The only background provided is that of main character Manigan as the sole survivor of a squad that was tragically slaughtered in a previous sting operation. Despite all the trauma of being busted, Manigan embarks on training anew which seems to suggest that she finds it worthy to risk all to fight in the drug war. The result presents as strictly business.

Soon the shantytown is turned upside down and pure anarchy takes over and the squad’s goal shifts from catching the bad guys to getting out of the fences alive. There are the tambays, throngs of women, some of whom are wearing hijab, and gangs of gay people. Everyone is painted as who the operative should knock down in a bizarre way. Bullets, knives, knuckles, pots and pans, and any found object improvised as a weapon permit no rest for the viewers as it takes a while to come to a full boil. The operatives try to make their way to safety by shooting, stabbing, and smashing their way through wave upon wave of bodies. As Matti himself describes it, BuyBust is ‘a zombie movie without zombies.’ And fighting back feels futile.

Up to this point, the film makes a few stops in noir-flavored repetition and slows its progress in the last third. The viewer gets lost in disarray after watching the high octane scenes.

Can we just be moved by a film or are we desensitized because the things on the screen are not exactly what’s happening in reality? Buybust is basically a mass murder spectacle from a middle class audience perspective. It may be a social commentary of the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs; but it also mocks the masses as a motive force, which can animate popular sovereignty and which the powers-that-be may reckon with.

Will the horrors of the tough anti-drug policies be resolved only through individual righteousness? In the end, our heroine, who still represents the establishment, gives an insight into the pro-war sentiments of this particularly spectacular film.

For that, the filmmakers reflect the moral compass of henchman Chongki (Levi Ignacio). In a standstill with the agents, Chongki demands the squad to surrender to spare the life of a local resident. While threatening to execute the man, he proclaims like the biblical Pontius Pilate that the man’s “blood is in your hands, not mine.”

BuyBust premiered at the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) on June 29, 2018. It had a wide Philippine release on August 1, 2018, and a limited North American release beginning August 10.


Director: Erik Matti; cinematographer: Neil Derrick Bion; editors: Jay Halili; produced by: Erik Matti, Vicente G. del Rosario III, Veronique Del Rosario; written by: Erik Matti, Anton Santamaria; music: Erwin Romulo, Malek Lopez. Not rated. In Filipino, and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 128 mins.

Starring: Anne Curtis, Brandon Vera, Victor Neri, Arjo Atayde, Levi Ignacio, Alex Calleja, Lao Rodriguez, Nonie Buencamino, Ricky Pascua, Joross Gamboa, Sheenly Gener, Mara Lopez, Tarek El Tayech, Maddie Martinez.