Movie Review: BuyBust is a Politically Biting Landmark of Filipino Action Cinema

TL;DR: BuyBust raises the bar for Filipino action filmmaking by offering intense, technically exceptional bouts of action amidst its scathing critique of Duterte’s drug war.

Throughout the years, Erik Matti has garnered critical acclaim & built a passionate audience by taking genre films with the broadest possible appeal, executing it with precision & finesse, & infusing them with his unmistakably Filipino touches that combine quirk & cynicism in fascinating ways; controversies & low box-office sales be damned. BuyBust might be the purest distillation of his work, not only delivering on its promise of non-stop action, but also smuggling a trenchant critique of Duterte’s drug war.

Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis) is a skilled member of the local anti-drug task force. She rarely takes orders from her superiors ever since she found a clue leading her to believe someone in the organization double-crossed them, causing the deaths of her previous squad members. Because of this, she gained a reputation for being stubborn, which wasn’t a huge problem to her current squad leader Bernie Lacson (Victor Neri), who’s commanding a team for the first time. Along with the rest of their team – which includes the kind, gigantic brute Rico Yatco (Brandon Vera), nervous rookie Gelo Elia (AJ Muhlach), Bernie’s wife Alda Lacson (Sheen Gener), & two other squad members with no distinct personas/roles Loren Santos (Mara Lopez) & Iggy Hizon (Tarek El Tayecch) – they are tasked to pull off a drug bust to lure the notorious drug lord Biggie Chen out in the open, using the mid-level drug pusher Teban (Alex Calleja) as bait.

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Everything is proceeding as planned when Biggie Chen decided to move the transaction within the slums of Gracia de Maria. Once inside, Biggie Chen reveals he knew about the drug bust & has trapped Nina, Bernie & the rest of the squad within its labyrinthine alleys, allowing Biggie Chen’s goons & associates to hunt them down in his own territory. While most citizens of Gracia de Maria are trying to avoid the crossfire, a deeply religious man named Solomon (Ricky Pascua) is different. He’s still grieving the death of his daughter who died in one of the anti-drug operations when an old relative of his was used as leverage & killed point blank in front of him, inspiring him & other residents of Gracia de Maria to fight back against Biggie Chen & the anti-drug task force, who put their lives in a constant state of fear & dread.

It does take a while for the violence to erupt. The film takes its time to lay out its conceit, setting up its thinly written archetypes disguised as characters as they covertly traverse Gracia de Maria without getting caught, putting us in their limited vantage point. It allows Erik Matti to show off his knack of cranking up the pressure without a single confrontation.

But once Biggie Chen’s goons starts firing at the anti-drug agents, the film erupts into a relentless onslaught of violence, to the point that it becomes exhausting & slightly repetitive. That’s by design, as Erik Matti is depicting the perpetual cycle of violence & devastation at the heart of Duterte’s deadly, ineffectual drug war in an enclosed battle royale. It’s filled to the brim with visceral, thrilling setpieces that leave everyone into a brutal, bloody pulp – making you feel every punch, stab, & gunshot thrown by those fighting for their lives – but it never forgets the resulting death & destruction left in its wake. The fact this happens on an isolated compound in the slums isn’t lost on the film either. The cramped, confined spaces emphasize the desperation & helplessness of the poor, who already have to contend with previous administrations’ failure to address our country’s poverty now finding themselves in the middle of a crossfire that rarely leaves their neighborhood. Add Philippines’ ongoing problems with corruption & police impunity & you’ve got a government policy that is not only useless, but also cruel & exploitative.

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What makes it more fascinating are the actors they chose to headline the film. Anne Curtis has had an eclectic resume in the past few years – this year alone she also starred in atypically caustic romantic comedy Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story) & the upcoming sci-fi horror film Aurora – & this film shows off her versatility as an actress. She may be small, but she’s a swift, ferocious fighter who dispatches her opponents quickly. She also gives Nina Manigan a convincing cynicism that the script couldn’t provide. Brandon Vera is awkward as Nina’s calmer, superstitious, more reasonable partner Rico when they’re bonding amidst the chaos, but that’s not the reason he was cast in the film anyway. Being a professional fighter in real life & pretending to fight a crowd for a movie are both different skills, & BuyBust proves he excels at both. The muscular body he gained as a mixed martial artist provides a stark contrast to the rest of the cast & it’s put to good use as he uses his sheer force to pummel through his enemies. Erik Matti & fight choreographer Sonny Sison both use their cast’s build to stage memorable fight scenes, which keeps the action novel & thrilling throughout its runtime. It is Erik Matti’s finest achievement, or at the very least his most technically accomplished film. One of the highlights is a bravura single take of Anne Curtis giving her all as she bashes her opponents in & out of the alleys & into the rooftops as she fights off an angry crowd.

But regardless of their survival, the drug-related killings will continue to persist unless people are willing to fight against a corrupt, inhumane system that allowed it to flourish. It’s not impossible. BuyBust offers some form of hope, which is surprising for a politically relevant Erik Matti film, but it comes at a cost; whether it be the numerous lives that we have lost during Duterte’s administration, our complicity to allow it happen, or those who sat willingly on the sidelines. We might be able to change the system, but none of us are going to come out of it unscathed.

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Metro Manila Film Festival 2017: Ang Larawan is a Stirring Eulogy for Old Manila

TL;DR: Ang Larawan is a stirring eulogy to Old Manila in the face of desperate times.

Ang Larawan (The Portrait) has a legacy of greatness behind its creation. It is based  on A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, a widely acclaimed Filipino play written in English by National Artist Nick Joaquin, which was then adapted into a classic movie by National Artist Lamberto V. Avellana. The play itself was turned into a musical called Larawan, The Musical with National Artist Rolando Tinio writing the libretto, famed musician & composer Ryan Cayabyab penning the music, & National Artist Salvador Bernal designing the set.

Ang Larawan follows its forebearer’s footsteps. As an adaptation of Larawan, The Musical, not only does it survive its transition from stage to film, it’s a moving tribute to an old way of Filipino life during the dawn of World War II that’s as masterful as its previous incarnations.

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Set during the dawn of World War II, Candida (Joanna Ampil) & Paula (Rachel Alejandro) are daughters of Don Lorenzo Marasigan, a widely renowned painter whose fame & wealth allowed them to enjoy the good life. Their father centered his children’s lives around art & his ideals when they were young, while hosting parties with other members of the Filipino elite.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to last. Both Candida & Paula are unmarried, living with their father who hasn’t produced a single painting in years, putting them in financial trouble. They don’t have enough money to pay their bills or buy necessities that they have to rely on their brother Manolo (Nonie Buencamino) & sister Pepang (Menchu Lauchengco-Yao) for their expenses. They even opened up one of their rooms to Tony Javier (Paulo Avelino), a two-bit vaudeville piano player with big dreams. But after their father had an accident, he drew a impressive painting for Candida & Paula & turned himself into a recluse. Word got around about their father’s latest masterpiece & their house is now bombarded by onlookers, art critics, & potential buyers. The painting might be their way out of their problems, but neither Candida nor Paula are willing to sell their father’s precious painting to anyone; not even to Tony, who became a middleman to an American buyer willing to buy for a huge amount of money. However, their increasing desperation & the looming war might just push them otherwise.

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At a first glance, setting up the conflict as whether two people are willing to risk their survival for a painting may not sound compelling for the big screen, but Ang Larawan gives us reasons to care. The family dynamic of the Marasigans is fascinating in itself & the movie leans heavily into it. Don Marasigan taught his children about his principles about art & culture & they either embraced it fully or rejected in tiny or huge ways, & now we’re seeing the fallout from their decisions. It’s reflected in the different ways they interpret their father’s latest painting, as they see their flaws & insecurities gawked & admired by the world at large. As different members of the Filipino society seek out this painting, their presence adds more dimensions to the movie. Their appearance is used to examine colonial Filipino society from different angles, especially those from a privileged background, & ask what does it mean to hold onto your values at a time or compromising them for a different one, when it’s easier to throw them away altogether to endure a world on the verge of collapse. It’s the old “art vs. commerce” & “integrity vs. prosperity” debate with much higher stakes, & while the conclusions the movie ends up with is a bit simplistic, it’s already emotionally involving since its discussions of art & integrity have been imbued by the human foibles of the Marasigans & the people surrounding them.

Especially when it’s done through song. The movie uses the same libretto & compositions from Larawan, The Musical, with the help of Ryan Cayabyab as the film’s musical director & the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra performing the score, & the jump to the big screen isn’t without its flaws. At times, it feels too claustrophobic & it doesn’t take more advantage of the freedom to play around in a three-dimensional space. The transition from one act to another can be stiff & awkward, but would play better with an actual curtain drop. It’s still heavily indebted to its theatrical roots, often to a fault.

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But it’s the same quality that makes it excellent. The movie consists of people belting out their emotions through the gorgeous music delivered by Ryan Cayabyab & the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra, buoyed from great performances from the rest of the cast. It’s not subtle, but it goes straight for your heart, grabbing it & never letting go, without any pretense about its intentions. Not too mention this movie is filled with ridiculous amount of talent. Joanna Ampil deservedly won Best Actress for her role, & it’s no accident. Her Candida is fierce, stubborn, & often on the verge of breakdown, whose emotions swirl & shift thanks to their horrible circumstances. The only other worthy performer for the same award would Rachel Alejandro as Paula, who’s more soft-spoken & reserved yet equally captivating. Together, they bounce off & balance each other’s energies that’s arresting to watch. And this might be Paulo Avelino’s first musical role, he acquits himself nicely as the scrappy, charismatic Tony, who tries to sweep Paula off her feet to gain her favor. We’re barely even mentioning the likes of highly talented actors like Nanette Inventor, Noel Trinidad, Zsa Zsa Padilla, Sandino Martin, Menchu Launchengco-Yulo, Nonie Buencamino & more.

All of them fully realize the struggles of the people with the knowledge that Filipino society as they know it is about to end. Even so, Ang Larawan is a moving farewell to that era, one that speaks to our better judgment in the face of so much uncertainty & destruction. The world might soon be turned upside down due to chaos & violence, but it might be better to confront it with our integrity intact.

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Smaller and Smaller Circles is an Excellent Mystery Set in a Seemingly Godless Universe

TL;DR: Raya Martin’s adaptation of F.H. Batacan’s critically acclaimed novel eschews the lurid thrills in its premise to examine corrupt institutions & God’s place within it.

Why does God allow bad things to happen?

If you’re a believer, it’s a question that will cross your mind in the face of continuous adversity. It doesn’t matter if your problems are big or small, since we all have our own crosses to bear. Prayers are the only lifeline some of us have, especially in a world where the weak & oppressed are at a disadvantage & the institutions surrounding them rarely help or address their problems; forcing them to act sinfully in order to survive, lest they end up in a worse state than they were before. But what happens when no one seems to be on the receiving end of our prayers? It can seem like there’s an all-powerful being who will judge us, but never listens to our sufferings. Or worse: there’s no one there in the first place.

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Father Gus Saenz (Nomie Buencamino) & Father Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero) find themselves in the perfect position to explore this conundrum in this movie adaptation of F.H. Batacan’s highly acclaimed novel, considered by many as the first Filipino crime novel. Both of them are Jesuit priests skilled in forensic science, whom are called by police director Francisco Lastimosa (Bembol Roco) to investigate a series of grisly murders targeting prepubescent boys in Payatas; a barangay famous for its huge garbage dumpsite & the poverty surrounding it. With the help of the Joanna Bonifacio (Carla Humphries), a nosy journalist who previously studied under Father Saenz, they’ll work together to figure out who is responsible for the senseless deaths.

The movie eschews the lurid thrills of its premise, since it’s not really what it’s about. It focuses more on our leads balancing their duties as priest who upholds the values of the Catholic Church, & as forensic experts helping out in any way they could. It embraces the process of solving the case, following clues & red herrings, & trying their best to figure out who perpetrated these murders & what kind of person would commit them. They also find themselves at the mercy of dysfunctional bureaucracies of the Catholic Church & the Philippine National Police, where corruption & incompetence fester rapidly that the powerless are not only at their mercy, but left to suffer continuously. While we get glimpses of the serial killer’s psychology throughout the movie – starting with the movie’s first scene – it never gives us the pleasure of enjoying the violence. It’s only teased out, & more often we see its chilling consequences. When we do get to see it, it is brutal, horrifying, awkward, & anticlimactic at times.

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It’s a workmanlike approach, allowing us to be absorbed in the brutal proceedings. It never gets too dark though, with its grim, deadpan sense of humor acting as a release valve that never overwhelms the sober tone it set. There’s also the throbbing score, a mix of subtle, pulsating synths, & the angelic voices of the Loboc Children’s Choir, sprinkled with quirky sound effects – like the sound of a dial-up router while the two priests are brainstorming – creating an atmosphere of doom amongst the Church & its young constituents. All of this is shot with a keen eye by J.A. Tadena, whose gorgeous cinematography drapes the movie with a grim color palette the further the leads are from positions of power, emphasizing how it feels to be ignored by institutions, & even God himself. After making critically acclaimed experimental films, Raya Martin has made another impressive work in his first foray into mainstream fare, that has enough quirky flourishes to make it stand out.

Surrounding the movie is a murderer’s row of talented actors. One of the best things about it are the surprise cameos from renowned actors delivering great work from bit parts – the best one involving an old woman giving Father Saenz a bag of maruya – that revealing them ruins half of the fun, so let’s talk about the performances that can’t be spoiled. Bembol Roco delivers a fiery performance as a morally upright police director who can unleash his anger in an instant. Raffy Tejado gives a layered portrayal as a slimy, incompetent attorney whose pride & ambition outmaches his intelligence & moral compass. Ricky Davao plays the role of Cardinal Meneses as a man who not only prioritizes the Church before his constituents, but also cunning enough to weaponize his supposed moral high ground.

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Arguably the best work comes from the leads, who crafted complex portrayals out of seemingly simple characters. Carla Humphries giver her role as a worldly, tenacious journalist with a warmth she shares with the people she’s familiar with. Sid Lucero exposes his character’s youth in his profession without diminishing his skills. Most importantly, Nomie Buencamino is a standout, who gives off a world-weary demeanor but never wavers in his fight against injustice.

These characters have moments where the stress of working on the case is starting to wear on them, yet they persevere; and not only because it’s the right thing to do. At one point, when Cardinal Menenses insinuates that Father Saenz has ulterior motives for joining the investigation, he replies: “There are many ways to give witness to faith.” We may not be sure if God exists, but Smaller and Smaller Circles suggests a way to bridge the gap between God & us mere mortals: helping the needy & exploited, & ensuring justice is served in the most humane way possible. It is the closest thing we have to an act of God, & those who have lost faith will need it.

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