Review: The Road to Jonestown

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples TempleThe Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Road to Jonestown is a compelling portrait of Jim Jones. He’s a fascinating human, and his combination of socialism and an increasingly spiritualist interpretation of the Gospel seems very enticing (though obviously, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Jones was not a man worthy of following). Typically I don’t see the appeal in cults, but that ideology and service-driven focus could have easily snagged 19-year-old me if I’d been around at the time. Just as interesting, Jones was able to gain legitimacy by obtaining membership within a nationally recognized church and by integrating himself into civil rights campaigning in Indianapolis and San Francisco. For all the abuse, control, and killing that would come down the line, he started off doing a lot of good. Yet that doesn’t make up for the evil that was ultimately unleashed by his increasingly twisted, controlling psyche.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Jim Jones, Peoples Temple and Jonestown, cults in general, or even local histories of Indianapolis or San Francisco. Just a fascinating read, and quite well-researched too.

I had two complaints with the book that were perpetual minor irritants.

For one thing, Guinn repeatedly refers to “Indiana University” as “the University of Indiana.” There are a lot of universities in Indiana, but the University of Indiana ain’t one of them. No one I know who is an alumnus or fan of IU calls it that, and as far as I can tell, it never had that name in its history (certainly not in the mid-twentieth century). Despite this, it’s a misnomer that Guinn uses frequently in the first third of the book, and he even indexes the university under this incorrect name. While it seems like he did his research about Indiana and appears to have visited at least Richmond and Lynn, this nonetheless made me repeatedly question his rigor of research and understanding of the state that, after all, formed Jim Jones into the adult and pastor who would form a church and campaign for civil rights reforms all before moving on to California.

The other complaint is that Guinn freely mixes the use of the terms “socialism” and “communism.” This would be a minor irritant, but it made it difficult to understand what, exactly, Jim Jones was advocating for. It may be that Jim Jones left plenty of confusion on that point–his organization seemed socialist, but he was prepared to move to communist Cuba or Russia by the time of the Jonestown days. Nonetheless, if Jones’s basic ideology was really so muddled as to be unable to distinguish between these systems of governance, it would have been nice to make that clearer in the text (or to make it clear that the confusion lay in communist countries referring to themselves as socialist). Especially in today’s politically divided America of hyperbolic rhetorical extremes, where even commonly accepted government entitlements are derided as “socialist” and treated as equivalent to communism by an ever-growing subset of conservatism, I think it’s important to use these terms as carefully as possible.

Those were the only things that bothered me while reading. It was a fast-paced, informative, and disturbing read. Guinn appeared to approach the matter with honesty and good faith. While in retrospect I would have preferred to learn more about the specifics of Jones’s increasingly bizarre beliefs that appeared to combine government conspiracy theories with spiritualism, a belief in reincarnation, and socialism, Guinn still does an admirable job of tracing the public and private arc of one rather charismatic cult leader’s life and self-serving death.

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Recommendation: Manila in the Claws of Light

What follows isn’t exactly a review; nor is it analysis. It’s just a recommendation of a classic film that I only recently discovered.

I had the pleasure of recently watching Manila in the Claws of Light, a 1975 Filipino noir film directed by Lino Brocka, produced and with cinematography by Mike De Leon, based on the novel of the same name by Edgardo Reyes and adapted to screen by Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr, and released in the midst of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos. In sum, it’s about the crushing oppression and despair experienced by the urban working class. Julio Madiaga (portrayed by Bembol Roco) is a simple fisherman who moves to Manila in search of his missing girlfriend, Ligaya Paraiso (Hilda Koronel), who was coerced by a strange outsider woman to move to the city with the promise of a factory job and education. Julio struggles to make ends meet as a construction laborer, encountering corruption and labor violations (including terribly unsafe working conditions) and discovering the worst slums of the city where some of his coworkers live. Ligaya, meanwhile, has been forced into prostitution. Julio most make desperate choices to stay alive, and yet we also see the working class friends he makes standing together in solidarity (mostly) to try to make it to another day. The film builds toward Julio finally rediscovering Ligaya, who is virtually imprisoned, with its final act devoted to a plan to escape. The entire arc of the movie is a series of tragedies, scenarios always worsening whenever the slimmest sliver of hope manifests.

The structure of the story is couched in intrusive flashbacks, especially in the first act, which can be disorienting and which reflect the protagonist’s exhausted, overworked frame of mind and his driving goal. Scenes of life on the streets of 1970’s Manila are bleak and powerful; at times, it almost feels documentary. The music is eerie, often anxiety-inducing, and frequently in jarring dissonance with the ambient sounds of the city, which typically crush in on the action. Manila’s streets constrict on the actors and audience as people swarm about with their own lives. Violence is commonplace and random. The few beautiful shots of city high-rises almost always frame them in the distant background, unreachable or uninhabitable by the core cast of characters. Public parks can be beautiful but also are threatening and clearly position Julio as out-of-place.

A few weeks ago, I’d never heard of the film. Now, it’s one of my favorite neo-noir works, up there with Taxi Driver and Chinatown. Thanks, Indianapolis Public Library system! This was a Criterion Collection remastered release of the film, and in addition to special features, it included a very thoughtful essay by film scholar José B. Capino regarding the movie and the director.

Manila in the Claws of Light is beautiful, disturbing, and intense, and I highly recommend it.

Review: BlacKkKlansman

I cannot imagine leaving BlacKkKlansman without a strong emotional reaction. In the film’s final moments, when it cuts from the narrative to footage of present-day racist gatherings and racist violence and finally ends in solemn silence, it felt as if a sobering pall had settled over the audience, who digested a few moments in silence before beginning to leave the theater. For me, white supremacist groups in America have felt so distant and ridiculous, not so much a threat as an absurd caricature, but this film portraying fictionalized events in 1970’s Colorado Springs reminded me of just how virulently evil and close and dangerous racism could be. I have remained perpetually disgusted with Trump’s administration, but I had the cooling distance of a native-born, white, middle-class American male, and with the never-ending string of controversies and scandals, most seeming more ineffectual and frivolous and unchanging, I stopped being so angry without ever realizing it. It’s a privilege to not be angry, to not be constantly troubled by the sudden confluence of blatant white supremacists and longstanding racist institutional structures, and this film reignited that anger and reminded me that a good portion of Americans don’t have the privilege of turning a blind eye to the never-ending racism in this country.

Some left the film confused–I know that. I overheard a discussion between mother and daughter, the mother hesitant and reserved in her evaluation of the movie, disbelieving. Some might be angry at the film itself, either for allowing nuance and complexity or for being too militantly activist. Others might challenge the factual events underlying the story (although any dramatic film actually trying to tell a story with any degree of artistic merit and structural cohesion will of course deviate from and embellish facts–it’s not a documentary). I’ve heard and seen some of these reactions emerging. The only sure thing is that people will react upon seeing it.

The film validates black anger and various black responses to a racist system and to individual racism, but it still credits those black people accomplishing good by working within the system rather than opposing it, and it recognizes white allies and other minorities who can work together and produce positive good in or out of the system, supporting or working in parallel with black activists. That was a fascinating trick, to simultaneously validate black anger against white people, to understand how someone could feel that all white people are bad, and yet to see that there are good white people who can be counted on to make a difference. Part of the success of this “trick” is that the film fundamentally recognizes that there is no single universal experience, that white people and black people don’t fit into monolithic demographic groups without any divergences or varied opinions and experiences. Even police officers are shown to inhabit a variety of attitudes, some compassionate and good, some obviously racist and power-hungry and evil, some subservient to additional power structures and punishing of those who push against them. But it’s still a trick that I can’t fully explain, because it’s not something revealed in a single moment. That nuance, the validation of the anger of many black people and the recognition of the range of attitudes among white and black people and among those within institutions of power in this country, might be what the film is about–one of the many things the film is about.

Other things the film is about: how individual and institutional racism are separate but serve similar oppressive functions and ultimately work together to mute or neuter progressive change; how a certain brand of conservative politics and religion, coalescing around a cluster of issues including crime, immigration, and entitlements, has given racism a reformed look; how certain politicians (irrespective of party or platform), from Wilson to Nixon to Trump, have directly benefited from playing to the concerns of white supremacists; how gun ownership and ready access to firearms is simultaneously a tool of white supremacists and a potentially empowering protective force for minorities; how even the most absurd, caricatured, cartoonish racism can be violent and dangerous and never really vanishes; and how even people with good intentions and admirable goals can still do terrible things (Stallworth starts the movie spying on the black power movement so that the police leadership can keep the minority population in check). That’s not an exhaustive list by any means, and it’s a combination of themes that are clearly intended by the creators and also inferred by my own viewing.

BlacKkKlansman is a film that sits squarely in the director-as-auteur tradition; Spike Lee’s fingerprints appear to be all over it. That said, I only know of Lee and his films by reputation, not familiarity, and so I can’t comment coherently on this or say what does or does not reflect his previous works. The cinematography was excellent (Chayse Irvin was director of photography), but this is definitely a film that benefits from careful editing and post-production. Posters, film clips, radio transmissions, music, and documentary footage flit between diagetic and non-diagetic. A particularly powerful moment flashes up images of a rapt audience reacting to a speaker, faces illuminated against a black void, showing the power of the speaker’s impact and the personal relationship between speaker and listener that is felt in a particularly moving oratory. The film is sometimes surreal, and its surreal moments develop an emotional authenticity. So even while the movie feels like an auteur production, it’s impossible not to easily recognize the influence of editing and the art, visual and special effects, and sound design departments in crafting a masterful whole.

The pacing is spectacular for the over-two-hour run-time. The dialogue is smart; it’s at times repulsively, unbearably hateful (which, in this context, is incredibly appropriate to show just how insidious and terrifying racism is), while at other times it’s charmingly, playfully light. No matter how dark the film gets, and it gets very dark, there is a lot of humor, and even some of the darkest moments can be funny, if uncomfortably or shockingly so. (Writing credits were given to Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee; the film was based on a book by the actual Ron Stallworth.) Interestingly, the plot feels very much like neo-noir: an investigator unravels a series of discoveries that result in a small win that is in turn ultimately crushed under the weight of institutional corruption and fails to produce lasting change. The comparisons are more numerous than that, but even in a nutshell, the noir influences are obvious enough. It makes sense: the narrative conventions of the genre work rather well for a story about battling against organized racism without ever really making a substantial dent. The local Klan by the end of the film has been somewhat defanged, but not deterred, and the organizational structure and political pressures in the police force cause efforts to curtail the Klan to be derailed just as soon as the undercover cops begin to make progress. They are too successful in stopping the worst of the Klan, such that the threat seems unimportant to higher-level officials.

And the film is full of fantastic acting. Most noteworthy are the leads (as is appropriate, I suppose). John David Washington has such natural charisma and a gleaming white smile, while his eyes alone are able to project such a range of emotions, even while the character of Ron Stallworth is often reserved or inhabiting a role. Adam Driver dripped sarcasm but always projected a heart of gold as Ron’s undercover partner Flip, and he has his own emotional arc as Flip finds himself reflecting more on his Jewish identity and how he has passed as “white” even as he burrows into the role of white supremacist to infiltrate the KKK. Laura Harrier conveys intelligence, passion, flirtatious charm, and self-righteous fury as Patrice, a black student union president, activist, and Ron’s romantic interest. Topher Grace is very hilarious as a young David Duke, and while I assumed he was just doing outright parody, the ending and very real clip of the current-age Duke made me realize that the performance was hilariously spot-on. And the cast of cops, activists, and white supremacists in supporting roles is deserving of note, as well–the supremacists in particular shockingly had a range of roles that, while all detestable and often idiotic, allowed at least local KKK leader Walter (Ryan Eggold) to seem charming and intelligent and almost-sympathetic. (I could say a lot more about the character of Walter–one of the interesting choices of the film was that it gives him a moment to explain why he’s a racist, but never explores it further; we don’t know if his history of violent encounters with black people is true or false, and ultimately it’s irrelevant, because nothing would support his racism. Actually, each of the characters represents something worthy of discussion about white supremacists, including the role of white women in these organizations.)

You may not like BlacKkKlansman. You may not agree with the film’s apparent messages. You may walk away with a variety of emotions or experiences that I cannot fully predict. But I’m sure that you will react. See it, and see it soon.

Review: Incensed

Incensed (A Taipei Night Market #2)Incensed by Ed Lin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw Incensed at the library, and since it was the library, I was willing to follow an eye-catching cover. I did not know that this was a sequel (in that it follows a character who was the protagonist of a previous book). I did not know what to expect in it. “Taiwanese gangland thriller” seemed about all that I could really gather from the jacket, but that was enough to sell me. I’m glad I followed my gut on this one.

Most surprisingly of all, while it’s technically a “Taiwanese gangland thriller,” the core narrative is about this food stand owner, Jing-nan (narrator and primary protagonist), dealing with the reintroduction of family into his life. He lost his parents while in college and dropped out to run his father’s food stand, which he did successfully. He lost a childhood love, found new love, and seemingly settled into a routine. Then his crime boss uncle reenters his life, and Jing-nan, who seems to long for family even if he doesn’t fully register it, is entrusted with watching over his teenager niece, who was kicked out of yet another school. Her father, Jing-nan’s uncle, is letting her visit Taipei so long as she promises to drop her biker boyfriend and refocus on school. Jing-nan’s a convenient guardian because he’s family and he already lives in the city.

This could have gone a few ways that would have felt predictable or safe. Instead, the story largely focuses on Jing-nan’s tenuous relationship with his newfound family, and on the city of Taipei itself. Jing-nan takes his cousin Mei-ling to a lot of restaurants, and he spends a lot of time at his own stand in the Shilin Night Market. You get a sense of the flavor (quite literally) of the city. There’s also a lot on the complex culture and politics of Taiwan, with a particular focus on Taiwan’s complex relationship with mainland China, the interactions between criminal organizations and the public, the ethnic tensions among Taiwanese, Taiwanese prejudices and opinions about immigrants, and the status of the LGBT community. These issues are framed both in a broader context, often through exposition or dialogue or background events, and in the characters and main plot of Incensed. It’s a focused way to tell the story that cleverly sets up the impending conflicts and revelations of the final act in the reader’s mind before it dawns on the protagonist.

That final act is triggered by the disappearance of Mei-ling. Jing-nan follows a series of clues and cleverly tracks her down, but the reader is left with a secondary investigation to piece through: just who his cousin really is. It sounds tacky, like there’s some big mystery, when I type it this way. The book’s jacket also suggests genre tackiness: “But Mei-ling is also hiding a secret–one that puts her in harm’s way.” That secret is interesting and earned, but it’s not nearly so dramatic as all that makes it sound. It’s fitting and ties into the novel’s themes. But to say more would be to spoil it.

I also liked that Jing-nan is an unreliable narrator. He’s twenty-five, and he has the mentality of a twenty-five-year-old: he thinks that he’s figured everything out, that he’s not so foolish as he was as a kid, that he has better judgment, that he’s wiser and more reserved. Yet he’s rather pretentious and still has some growing to do. He views himself as something of a hero for a freak occurrence, yet his alleged bravery is repeatedly undermined by what happens. He has loud opinions about music, and is an obsessive Joy Division fan, but doesn’t seem aware of how he’s constructed an identity around this fandom. And that fandom causes a huge blind spot–he can’t understand or relate to his cousin’s interest in singing pop music, and he openly derides her taste for much of the novel. (Fascinatingly, he has such a limited view of the creative process that he believes that musicians start out good, as though everyone doesn’t start at zero regardless of talent.) Jing-nan also reaches a number of revelations and does a bit of self-reflection throughout the novel, but he almost always attributes it to himself when the lessons he learns are often more-or-less dictated to him by his friends and family.

The writing itself is fast-paced and dynamic. Sentences are typically short and often blunt. Chapters breeze by. It’s a good read for a Sunday afternoon.

There are some references to Jing-nan’s past that are bewilderingly dramatic and under-developed–but only if you don’t know going in that this is a sequel! Frankly, as long as you know it’s a sequel, I don’t think that reading the first book is necessary to fully appreciate this one. It’s a good, fun read, and it’s deeper than I expected.

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And for those who already read the book or who don’t care about spoilers: I thought Mei-ling was a great character! She’s smart and funny and far more respectful to her cousin than her spoiled brat image suggests. I realized that there was more to her far earlier than Jing-nan’s gradual revelations. He was rude and self-obsessed; she was passionate and goal-focused. He couldn’t get past her surface image because of her tense relationship with her bigoted and criminal father and because she treated her father’s criminal goons with disdain. (The sexually exploitative pictures that he discovers don’t help, but that makes Mei-ling, in my mind, someone who doesn’t fully understand the consequences of her behavior, like a typical teen, and who was exploited as a result of her ambition and naivete. That interpretation sets up what happens in the final act quite nicely, I think.)

I also suspected rather early on that a lot of Mei-ling’s behavior problems were linked to her repressed sexual identity. Jing-nan really bumbles through things before he catches on. I was quite pleased with how Ed Lin explored the subject of queer sexual identity through the perspective of a hetero-normative outsider (and I suppose that’s appropriate, too; Lin’s married to a woman, and a more intimate depiction probably would have felt dishonest).

My biggest disappointment was that we don’t really see Mei-ling’s crisis of identity resolved. Once her ordeal as an exploited sex worker is ended and she is reluctantly “rescued” by her family, it is suggested that she will be put back into a fairly confined box by her father once more. It’s a tragic ending, and a dark one, and I don’t know how much of that was intentional. I’d certainly like to read a sequel that showed what ended up happening to Mei-ling.

Review: On The Job

I did not know anything about On The Job before I watched it. It was on the shelf in the library, next to Ma’ Rosa in the tiny Filipino film section. It seemed like a dumb action movie, and that was worth a checkout from the library, at least.

In many ways, it is a dumb action movie. Too-tight editing interferes with coherence and causes several jarring cuts between scenes in the first third. Information about the characters’ backgrounds is slowly teased out, though very little is actually treated as a mystery in the film, so the audience is left guessing until the end just to understand basic motivations of the characters. It’s also got a lot of intense fights and cool assassins and corrupt cops and slick action sequences. It’s a fun action movie!

But in other ways, it’s much more than just another dumb action movie. Once I started to piece together all the pieces, I realized that what I once took as defects were intentional misdirects. Where I could guess what would happen for the first two-thirds of the film, for the most part, the last third took several wild twists and wound up in a really dark film noir finale.

One misdirection is simply identifying the protagonist of the film. We are first introduced to Mario (Joel Torre) and Daniel (Gerald Anderson). Mario is an experienced assassin, and Daniel is his understudy. They’re employed by a middleman representing obscured political figures; they get jobs so long as they’re serving their prison terms, as the corrupt guards can get them in and out to provide the perfect cover, and the prisoner-assassins are desperate enough to accept any job without question and expendable enough that there’s no particular risk in using/losing them.

These two do not seem like particularly bad men. Mario wants to get out to be with his family again. Daniel, despite his tough-guy exterior, can be shockingly sweet and loyal. But they’re both willing to kill anyone–including women, including the elderly, and never with a reason, just for cash and a little time out of prison. And Mario in particular is increasingly shown to be flawed, amoral despite his apparent desire to be a better man, caught up in a fantasy about his family that does not match the reality.

If not the assassins, then maybe the police investigating their killings are meant to be the protagonists? We first meet Francis Coronel (Piolo Pascual), a top-of-his-class young police officer, when he is appointed by his father-in-law to head an investigation into the murder of a drug dealer. His father-in-law wants the matter to be handled discretely, and it’s not long before we realize he’s covering for a politician friend who has a history as the head of a contract killing agency. The murder of the drug dealer was carried out by Mario and Daniel, who are working through an intermediary to take out targets who could rat on the politician. Francis seems a little obtuse at first, or maybe just not especially interested in solving the crime. As he learns more of the truth, he is repulsed by his father-in-law’s corruption and personal sins, yet he finds it difficult to betray family. His assigned partner, Bernabe (Rayver Cruz), is a thug who is happy to beat suspects and informants but who seems relatively unconcerned with solving the case as well, and that attitude never really changes for the entirety of his time in the film.

The local police officer originally assigned to the case, Acosta (Joey Marquez), has a passion for justice, but his career has been hamstrung by that ethical drive in a corrupt department. And while we might suspect that he is the protagonist, once he appears, he is even crueler than Bernabe at first, too willing to go too far to try to get information. Furthermore, as a more practical matter, Acosta is just not that prominent in the film until about the midway point.

When Francis and Acosta inevitably team up, they both temper each other. Francis begins to stand up to his wife and father-in-law, unwilling to go along with the rampant corruption, though his opposition comes in fits and starts. Acosta gains focus and drive.

Yet the end of the film is a roller coaster ride that ends with the bad guys winning out, the few honest cops in disarray or dead, and Mario locked up in the hitman life for good. By the end, I decided that while there wasn’t a single protagonist, Mario might have been the chief protagonist–but he was not a hero. He was not even an antihero. He was a man who kills for money, ultimately left by the end with no other motivation. His actions, however, drive the plot and shape the other characters.

In some ways, the film becomes a metaphor for a set-in-its ways old guard that is challenged by a passionate new guard. Systematic corruption and inertia bend survivors to serve the old guard; those who resist are snuffed out. There’s also obvious social commentary in the film. While definitely an over-the-top action movie, police corruption and desperate poverty are perpetually relevant topics.

This film got under my skin and left me thinking. I think a re-watch would probably be quite rewarding. I was expecting a dumb action movie, and I got a complicated neo-noir story.

Director and co-writer Erik Matti delivered a highly compelling film that I would certainly recommend. And Joel Torre’s sympathetic portrayal of the cold killer Mario is a special highlight. This film is worth a watch.

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.

Keeping the peace in an open-world game

I’ve been reading about open-world games recently, and it’s got me thinking about the failings of a certain type of open-world game. Too often, it feels like a game becomes open-world because it’s a feature to try to sell people on the title, regardless of whether it actually adds any value to the experience. Just for one example, this appears to be what happened with Mafia III. (“At first, it was envisioned as a straightforward revenge tale, but 2K boss Christoph Hartmann wanted Mafia III to compete with Rockstar . . . . He wanted districts, empire-building, and a massive open world.”)

One game type that seems particularly unsuited for the open-world concept, despite being routinely drafted in this way, is the law-enforcement game.

There are many types of stories that can be told about the police: some can portray peace officers in a positive or heroic way, some can present crooked or abusive or outright corrupt and villainous cops, and many are mixed and complicated. And there have been some pretty good crime drama stories to come to video games. Two prominent examples are L.A. Noire and Sleeping Dogs. But both games suffer from an open world that seems to exist mainly to just give the players the option of doing something else, even if there’s not much to do with the feature.

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L.A. Noire in particular tells a complicated and gritty noir story, with each chapter diced between increasingly gruesome and unexplainable murders. The player’s investigation of crime scenes and attempts to tease out the truth in tense interviews with witnesses and suspects make up the bulk of the main form of gameplay. Over the course of the game, I suspect that just about any player questions whether they’re making the right call–and, without giving up too much for those who haven’t played, the end of the game reveals that the whole truth was more complicated than we could imagine for many of these cases.

But in between these tense and disturbing criminal investigation scenes, and the occasional obligatory shootout mission, we have long stretches of just driving around. There’s not all that much to do, apart from hunting down useless collectibles, seeking out 1940’s Los Angeles landmarks, and participating in a series of twitchy and repetitive street enforcement missions. The little side missions in particular feel like an effort to give a greater range of ways to interact with the game, but they all boil down to distracting radio calls to drive halfway across the city just to participate in the same repetitive mixture of shoot-outs, chases, and twitchy hostage-rescue shots.

The map is big, but there’s very little to organically draw the player in. This is probably at least in part a product of shifting design decisions, but when one is on the straight-and-narrow as an upstanding law enforcement officer, the crazy high jinks that typically make open-world games so entertaining have to be reined in. In place of rampaging through the city, the distractions that are inserted feel very gamey indeed and quickly grow tedious. And the player can even choose to skip from destination to destination, having their partner drive instead. The game very much so feels like a fairly linear, structured game arbitrarily mounted onto an open-world framework.

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Similarly, Sleeping Dogs is a cool story about an undercover cop trying to bust gangs in Hong Kong. Where L.A. Noire obviously draws on the film noir genre, Sleeping Dogs pulls from martial arts films and contemporary cop dramas. While one could commit criminal acts, there was a certain incentive to continue to operate largely within the scope of the law within the overworld map. Even if one were to go on a rampage, it would detract from the story being told.

And that story is pretty well-told! But it’s a story that relies heavily on cinematic scenes and fast-paced martial arts action sequences. By adding another fairly restrained open world, with fairly limited interactivity (another round of landmarks and collectibles), the world feels less organic and more a maze of lengthy car rides between missions.

Open-world games excel when story is more in the background. The focus should be on exploring the world, and it should be packed with fun things to do. The ability to cause chaos and see how effects radiate out from that chaos is often a big source of fun. Unpredictable playing experiences in true sandbox games allow for dynamic, organic stories that can do away with scripted storytelling altogether. The highlights of an Elder Scrolls game or a Grand Theft Auto game very rarely have to deal with the main plot, after all (or at least have more to do with cleverly designed missions in that main plot that take advantage of the open-world systems in the game).

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Either the open world is bland and gets in the way of the main story, or the main story feels like a railroaded obligation amid all the other fun to be had. I think that the Grand Theft Auto series demonstrates this rather well. Grand Theft Auto IV might have had the most original story in the franchise and seemed to have a lot to say in its dark and decaying world where the American dream is an illusion always just out of reach. But that story was somewhat defeated by the wanton chaos players could get up to between missions and by the easy ability to earn more and more money, and so much of that story was wasted on driving from point to point on the map. Other games have felt a lot more derivative, but they’ve focused more on the open world and benefited from it (especially Vice City with its introduction of investment properties, San Andreas with its huge world packed full of things to discover and weird people and beautiful environments and an exponential multiplication of activities and jobs, or Grand Theft Auto V with its three characters to rotate through to keep the fun going and a bank-heist-centered plot that focused on channeling the chaotic entertainment of the main game rather than burning out in an over-long drag).

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Being able to truly do anything, story (and morals) be damned, seems key to a really fun open-world game that will keep pulling the player back. While Red Dead Redemption has a story that is arguably about law enforcement (since you’re playing an against-his-will bounty hunter), the protagonist’s antagonism toward the federal government and the setting in the Wild West allow for a lot of less-than-virtuous gunplay and no-good deeds that don’t feel too far out of character or inappropriate. Plus, there are a lot of random encounters and side jobs and weird things to get up to while moseying across the plans or into towns. And despite the above, I think that the game suffers by having an overly long and dreary linear story, much like Grand Theft Auto IV.

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As a final example, the original Crackdown, despite ostensibly being about a law enforcement super-agent meant to take down out-of-control gangs, is really about causing as much devastation as possible across the map. The absurd power fantasy is front and center, and while your interactivity with the world is mainly limited to fighting bad guys and scaling the environment for collectibles, the game succeeds (to the extent that it does) by keeping the focus on chaos and player experience rather than a soggy story. (Not a law enforcement-focused game, but Mercenaries had a pretty similar model.)

In summary, games about law enforcement typically have dramatic stories that they want to tell. To the extent that an open world is involved, it often gets in the way of that story, either by being thematically dissonant or by simply disrupting the story with a lot of padding. And even where the open world might otherwise work, the hindrance of presenting an open world that requires a more constrained hand by the player (or more invisible walls on conduct) defeats the purpose of having that open world in the first place.