Review: “Amo” and “Ma’ Rosa”

Over the past couple weeks, my wife and I watched first season one of the television series Amo and then the film Ma’ Rosa, both directed by Filipino director Brillante Mendoza.

Mendoza’s presence is obvious in both enterprises. Both show and film have a naturalist approach to film-making, with documentary-style shots of characters interacting, walking, reflecting. The cameras always feel physically present, jostling along in step with a protagonist, zooming in on a memento hanging from a rearview mirror or resting on a table, blurring in and out of focus as though the cameraman is reacting to a truly unexpected series of events. Dialogue is naturalistic, too, with the delivery often muted, lines often rambled and repeated and murmured and talked over. (The actors delivering these lines also carry the fingerprint of Mendoza–we noticed, for instance, that Vince Rillon stars as high-school-age drug runner Joseph Molina in Amo and also has a bit part in Ma’ Rosa, while Felix Roco portrays Molina’s sleazy drug-dealing brother-in-law in Amo and has a supporting role as one of the children of Rosa in the film). Scenes occur where a lot is said, but very little is of importance. It’s not as easy to expect narrative payoff of certain themes or people focused on early on, as the characters and events don’t have arcs so much as a zig-zag series of happenings.

Most importantly, both show and film deal with drug dealers and corrupt police in the era of the Duterte administration. And both have similar things to say. For one thing, Amo and Ma’ Rosa seem to suggest that the ones actually selling the drugs are often very normal, family-oriented, impoverished people who need the extra income in their lives.

In Amo, the primary character is a teenage drug courier who spends his earnings not on himself (for the most part) but on his family; he’s pushed along to move from meth to designer party drugs, getting in increasing legal troubles even as he stays a fairly quiet, reserved young lad. The customers he serves are often young and wealthy–even his early meth trades are on behalf of kids spending their days playing video games in internet cafes (and his original supplier, in contrast, seemed even worse off than him, living in a ramshackle slum dwelling with his wife and daughter). In Ma’ Rosa, Rosa and her husband run a convenience store, which also serves as home for them and their four kids, and the meth dealing they do is presented as a small side business to supplement their meager earnings. There are a couple moments where Rosa’s view lingers on other families. After she and her husband are arrested in a raid, she solemnly watches kids digging through recycling, and the message seems to be that she fears that now, if her husband and she are locked away, her kids might end up on the streets. In the final scene, she watches teary-eyed as a younger family packs up a cart that offered many small convenience goods, and it implicated to me that she now reflected on a simpler time when her family had less, a time before the involvement of drugs.

Amo and Ma Rosa’ also clearly show the police force to be corrupt and ineffective. In Amo, the police kidnap a drug dealer to attempt to get a ransom out of his wife. In Ma Rosa’, the entirety of the plot revolves around Rosa’s arrest and her children’s efforts to collect enough money to meet the police’s required bribe to release their parents (the cops never register them, offering freedom for cash in contrast to otherwise being held without bail with potential life sentences for drug crimes; in a scene that caused a bit of sympathetic terror for me, the kids were led from location to location in the police precinct, no one having any idea of where their parents are or if they’re even there, until a corrupt cop overhears and leads them to a back room). Mendoza often shows police brutality: beatings, kidnappings, warrantless arrests and harassment, and a willingness to kill suspected drug dealers and users. Many are killed by police while fleeing or fighting back. Some are killed without cause, simply because the police had information that they were dealers. And it is implied that some vigilante efforts might also have police involvement or tolerance. Amusingly, Amo also shows how futile some of the police initiatives are. They rounded up people for mandatory drug testing, and those who were willing to promise never to use drugs again were put into zumba courses. Yes, zumba courses as the entirety of drug addiction treatment. The crazy thing is, that surreal practice is real!

Both productions come with ample problematic messaging, as well. Mendoza always displays acts of police brutality and corruption in relation to actual drug users and dealers. I don’t recall a single instance in show or film where the police targeted an innocent person (beyond innocent spouses and children losing their drug-dealing loved ones). Mendoza thus narrows the frame to ask the question, “Is this police force justified in light of the criminal epidemic they face?” And secondarily, he seems to say, “When faced with such greedy, repugnant vice, it is natural that law enforcement would in turn become greedy, repugnant, and vice-driven.” We sometimes hear Duterte in the background of Amo, in news programs, but the top-level officials are presented as blameless (if misguided); corruption is always in the low- and mid-level ranks. Additionally, the drug dealers are shown to be undesirables: the impoverished slum dwellers, foreigners (including Chinese and Japanese nationals), religious minorities (the Muslim community in particular), and hedonistic homosexuals. As much as Mendoza seems at first to be presenting a balanced viewpoint in the early episodes, by the end it should be of no surprise that he is a fervent Duterte supporter. Some of the above just seems to be baggage for this type of crime narrative, though. I saw some reports comparing Amo to Narcos following the former’s acquisition by Netflix, and to an extent this makes sense: both are about real moments in history (one much more recent than the other) in which postcolonial governments have struggled to control the spread of drug trafficking. And Amo and Narcos both seem to apologize for the excesses of law enforcement in their campaigns against the traffickers, even as both shows are quite ready to show that those excesses exist(ed). Maybe it’s the culture gap, or maybe it’s the benefit of slicker American production values, but I think that Narcos managed to be a little subtler in that messaging.

Of all of the problematic elements in Mendoza’s works, I think the most egregious is the representation of homosexuality: in short, always a symptom of widespread vice. In Amo, a couple of nightclub owners apparently get up to homosexual debauchery while using cocaine, and the malleable young Joseph seems to end up as their boy toy for a while (though he also has sex with a lot of other women, as well–more generally, loose sex is linked with drug use in the show). In Ma’ Rosa, one of Rosa’s sons turns to prostitution to raise money to get her out of jail. There’s an uncomfortable scene of the young man lying nude on a bed while his much-older male companion kisses him. The whole time, the boy just looks off in the distance blankly, dispassionately, disconnectedly. It’s not hard to see how Rosa’s arrest led directly to this moment–and her arrest was a direct result of her drug trade. (There’s also some uncomfortably on-point ambient radio chatter directly beforehand about how crocodiles can change sex based on their temperature.)

Despite the problems of both productions, my wife and I largely enjoyed them. Their naturalistic style results in a gritty, simmering narrative where it can be difficult to predict the outcome (especially in Amo). Ma’ Rosa had a carefully tailored narrative arc beneath its naturalistic veneer, and the acting–especially that of Jaclyn Jose as Rosa and Julio Diaz as her husband Nestor–was great. And Amo had the time to explore a great many themes about life under the Duterte administration. Additionally, Amo managed to be simply weird. While couched in realism, the show often veers into the surreal. This ranges from an ever-present street hip-hop crew that raps about the themes and emotions of the episode like a Greek chorus to occasionally disorienting visuals that highlight emotional realities over verisimilitude.

I would recommend both Amo and Ma’ RosaAmo is currently streaming on Netflix, and so is probably the more accessible of the two, but I think that they are both compelling works.

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