By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento
Directed by Eric Matti
THE FILIPINO film auteur Eric Matti’s BuyBust was two years in the making and the extraordinary care and effort that went into crafting this action-packed (an understatement) extravaganza are evident. Overall, it’s a pleasant surprise to find the many frenetic fight scenes so competently choreographed, although somewhat haphazardly staged. There are incoherently sincere homagic echoes of classic cinematic blood fests like Kill Bill and the Mad Max movies. Through the stylized grime and luridly lit detritus, BuyBust occasionally shines with sparks of wit and fun. Nonetheless, the depictions of crazed slum dwellers as rabidly violent and lethally zombie-like, raise disturbing questions, foremost of which is: does this characterization of the poor intend to justify killing them off in such inordinate numbers in real life?
A prominent Duterte supporter from Davao has reasoned that decimating impoverished substance abusers was necessary because of the singular effect narcotics has upon them. He claimed that the cumulative result of all the deprivations and injustices that the very poor suffer as a necessary part of their daily existence, causes them to go berserk whenever they get high. Middling or upper class folks might safely indulge, and still be chill, but give the very poor even a taste of THC or fine whisky, and they will lose it, in a heinous synergy of their personal circumstances and bad chemistry. The poor just can’t handle drugs, and are transformed into multitudinous, verminous Dr. Jekyll’s and Mr. Hyde’s. Extermination is the only solution.
BuyBust mostly takes place in the surreally handmade slum Gracia ni Maria (artfully constructed over 8,000 square meters of blighted real estate), with as many mystifying levels as a Max Escher etching. Aside from the usual hovels and drug dens, Gracia ni Maria even has its own disco, human trafficking pens, a mini-mosque and a makeshift graveyard. The latter should come in handy given the body count at the film’s end.
The film opens with the torture of the pusher Teban (Alex Calleja), by SPO Rudy Dela Cruz (Lao Rodriguez) while his dead-eyed commanding officer Capt. Alvarez (Nonie Buencamino) impassively looks on. Their worthy goal is to get Teban to rat on his supplier “Biggie” Chen (Arjo Atayde). Chen’s moniker is aspirational at best. He operates out of the dinky and fetid Gracia ni Maria — a far cry from the first tier gated communities and swanky high rises worthy of the more financially successful drug lords. “Biggie” is strictly small-time, but he can dream of someday living up to his name.
Meanwhile, the adorable Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis) plays shoot-em-up with her PDEA cohorts, among them, the even more adorable Brandon Vera, the Fil-Am mixed martial arts athlete, as Rico Yatco. In the ostensibly covert operation to get Biggie Chen, these special police forces enter Gracia ni Maria where the rules of Filipino social reality no longer apply. For one thing, here, almost everyone carries, either paltik (home-made gun), long knives, or plain do-it-yourself hardware. A corpse’s schoolgirl sister makes do with a claw hammer. Still, the company of narcos inevitably attract attention, conspicuously and incongruously costumed as they are in spiffy bulletproof flak vests and brandishing army regulation heavy artillery. The feckless witnesses who happen to spot them, are dragged along, Farmer in the Dell fashion. It’s a ridiculous solution straight out of the Grimm’s fairy tale where the trickster holding the golden goose gets the curious to touch it, and tows them in his wake, a veritable chain of fools.
The heroine Manigan is not immune to these Kafkaesque Keystone Cops shenanigans. After all those earlier scenes establishing her as a crack shot and undergoing rigorous combat training with her crew, she uses her formidable fully loaded armalite as a bludgeon against two unarmed assailants. Of course, if she actually took aim and shot the bad guys with live bullets, then she wouldn’t have the chance to show off her fine fighting form by using her shapely legs to strangle them in a wrestling scissors hold. And what red-blooded Filipino male does not salivate at the prospect of having Anne Curtis’s thighs wrapped around his neck?
The superhuman Manigan even defies gravity. With just one dainty, perfectly manicured hand, she casually shoves a kariton (cart) loaded with explosives uphill, scattering a horde of murderous, malnourished squatters. When Biggie Chen applies brass knuckles to her lovely face, her lips burst into a luscious though bloody pout, yet not a single bone breaks. Despite such accomplishments, the poor dear’s self-esteem is so low that she glumly calls herself a jinx — malas. She may be an extraordinarily gifted rookie, but this is the second buy-bust operation she’s been on, where everyone dies except for her. Others would call her lucky, but the poor girl doesn’t see it that way. Survival might be the start of a new franchise for the erstwhile romcom princess.
There are bleak touches of hollow humor, such as the doomed company’s inability to call for back-up because there is no cellphone signal in Gracia ni Maria. “Signal jammers,” someone helpfully explains, absolving the telcos from blame. Then, minutes later, we get to watch Biggie Chen’s lead muscle, the scrawny but invincible Chongki (Levi Ignacio) prove yet again what a homicidal maniac he is, by undertaking the sadistic and prolonged gangland style execution of an elderly man who annoyed him because he couldn’t stop his cellphone from ringing. Seems the signal jammers work very selectively as a plot device.
The murdered man was a guest at the wake of Judiel, the daughter of Solomon (Ricky Pascua). This is the last straw for these chief-test mourners. They are instantly transformed into a crazed mob of urban poor, Bacchae in dusters, sando (sleeveless undershirts), and tsinelas (slippers) who indiscriminately attack even the supposedly good guys. The raucous randomness and excessiveness of the violence cross over into camp, but for a generation raised on video games it is all par for the course.
More than a socio-political commentary, one is left with the unsettling feeling that the supposedly good guys (with the exception of Manigan and Yatco) are either criminally corrupt or hopelessly inept. Manigan’s team leader Bernie Lacson (Victor Neri) literally runs the operation like a mom and pop outfit, with his wife (Sheenly Gener) fussing by his side. “What’s your plan?” she pointedly asks him after three quarters of their team are killed. Apparently, he didn’t have one. Despite their hundreds of hours of combat and reconnaissance training, Manila’s finest are unable to get their bearings in a slum. They are there to serve and protect us, and in the end, good intentions are all they have.
By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento