Cinemalaya 2018 commenced with a film that wrung a familiar thread in the present Philippine political climate. In a country so polarized due to a “war on drugs“, BuyBust offers an attempt to synthesize the realities that are often swept under the rug by government propaganda: violence, bloodshed, and death – repeat until it makes your stomach churn.
The brunt of the plot follows Manigan (Anne Curtis) and her squad on a drug raid in a poor barangay said to be the hideout of a big time drug syndicate leader. The operation turns plan A to plan Z (as in Zombie) when they realize the whole thing was a set-up.
The film might have well been a zombie movie. A typical zombie film might feature the undead – crazed for human meat – chase around the protagonist. This however has drug pushers and hoards of informal settlers, with guns and makeshift weapons, as the horrific plague. As the night grows deep, Manigan’s squad is pushed deeper into a labyrinth of shanties and barong-barongs without any exit in sight. When they are literally hacked to death one at a time by the angry mob, it is hard to keep your last meal down.
The plot is highly reminiscent of the critically acclaimed Indonesian film, The Raid. But Director Erik Matti tries to repackage it by injecting a serious critique of the Philippine drug war and government bureaucracy, and setting it in the claustrophobic alleys of Metro Manila slums – which heightens your feeling of impatience and eagerness to escape. Although the fight scenes were too long and some poorly executed relative to its comparable martial arts films, the numerous lifeless bodies everywhere served a point.
Anne Curtis in particular needs to be commended for her portrayal of agent Manigan. Aside from a total departure from her usual (sometimes dumb) romantic films, it’s worth applauding the mere audacity to take on an emotionally complex female character whose motivation is simply to do her job. It is a breath of fresh air from typical female characters of Filipino mainstream movies who are motivated by maternal instincts or romantic “martyrdom”.
Rooting for Manigan and her squad, to get out of the maze alive is expected. But the whole time, you question your sympathies when you realize the motivation behind the mob’s crazed attitude towards the police. That is, a people fed up with being the collateral damage of the police’s indiscretion and incompetence. Suddenly, your morality and your perspectives on Philippine politics is put to the test – something that not a lot of Philippine films are able to intelligently induce.
The film did not shy away from addressing morally complex issues and unpacked a lot of painful realities. Director Erik Matti is often indignant about his disapproval of the Philippine National Police and President Rodrigo Duterte’s unethical, morally bankrupt policies. This was his attempt at expressing his frustration.
But by far, the most striking part and what summed up not just the film but the whole Philippine drug war was the last scene.
After surviving her ordeal – the only one left from her squad – with the master drug lord “Biggie Chen” in her custody, and realizing her boss was in on setting them up for the wolves, she takes a gun, shoots both Biggie Chen and her boss, and finally puts a bullet through her leg. When the police come to investigate what happened she retorts, “Nanlaban ang suspect.” (The suspect tried to retaliate.) The camera pans from her to a bird’s eye view of the barangay where thousands of bodies are sprawled in broad daylight while in the background the news reporter says only a dozen or so people were killed in the whole operation.
If that doesn’t make you say “Putang Ina!”, then I guess you need to read some more about the Philippines’ present political context.
Review by Rarry Abatol