3 Reviews: Heneral Luna, Kita Kita, & BuyBust

Back at the start of January, just over a month ago, my wife and I watched three Filipino films on Netflix: Heneral LunaKita Kita, and BuyBust. As I write this, the three are still on Netflix, included in the paltry “Filipino Movies & TV” category along with AmoBirdshot, and recent additions All of You (a romance/drama) and Goyo: The Boy General (a sequel to Heneral Luna).

Heneral LunaKita Kita, and BuyBust share the simple similarity of being Filipino films in the same way that GloryMy Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Dirty Harry all share the similarity of being American films. In other words, there’s nothing uniting them. And if I were writing these reflections closer to viewing, or if this blog were focused on film, then I would definitely give each film its own separate post with completely separate reviews.

As it is, I’ve been wanting to write up my thoughts on these films for a while, but I’ve put it off so long that I’m relying on faulty memory and my own brief notes, and this blog is far from a review site or film discussion platform. So here they are, all together, united only by national origin.

Kita Kita

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I’ll start with Kita Kita, as this was my favorite of the three, and I’d recommend it to just about anyone who loves fun or, well, love. Kita Kita, written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo, is a 2017 romantic comedy starring Alessandra de Rossi and Empoy Marquez. De Rossi’s character is a Filipina tour guide living in Sapporo, Japan, who develops temporary blindness after discovering that her boyfriend was cheating on her. Marquez is a dorky young man who moves in across the street, attempting to befriend her as she adjusts to her new life without vision. If that sounds ridiculous, it is, and the film just has a lot of fun without ever really laughing at itself. Marquez and De Rossi have excellent chemistry and are frequently funny. Absurd elements pile up in the background and foreground, including a silent banana sidekick, a subversion of the expected feeling-of-loved-one’s-face-to-see, a shockingly blunt third-act shift in plot and tone that revisits much of the film’s events, and a major plot thread hung on the fact that the Sapporo brewing company originated in and was named for the city of the same name. Yet the sillier it gets, the sweeter it gets, and I was touched both by the central relationship and the final moments of the film. I’ll admit that I read some moments of heightened sentimentality in an ironic way and enjoyed the movie for it; some might read it straight and find those same moments cloying (or at least cute rather than painfully, awkwardly funny). Kita Kita invites you to give in to fun and romance for an hour and a half, and whether you decide that it’s subversive and clever or absurd and stupid, you’ll probably at least laugh a few times. Oh, also, KZ Tandingan performs a version of “Two Less Lonely People in the World,” which is just great; she’s worth listening to even if you plan to skip the movie.

Heneral Luna

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In contrast, Heneral Luna (directed by Jerrold Tarog, who shares writing credit with Henry Francia and E.A. Rocha) is a 2015 Filipino war epic and biopic of the titular general, Antonio Luna (portrayed by John Arcilla). I thought the movie was campy and nationalist, heavy in symbolism but at best a modest success as a historical fiction or biographical production. I was only vaguely familiar with Luna’s life and only somewhat more familiar with his death, but my knowledge was enough to guide me through the dizzying whirlwind of factual and fictitious events depicted. I don’t think it’s meant to be read as pure history, either, as there are some surreal sequences that attempt to plumb his psyche and early years, and battles are played up for gallant heroism with the occasional grotesque carnage of war thrown in for emphasis. Seriousness is lost especially in every scene portraying the Americans, as the “American” actors dressed up cliche-filled dialogue in hammy performances and cheesy accents. General Arthur MacArthur is portrayed as such a goddamn cowboy general despite his pompous demeanor and portly body that it was tempting to cheer for the comic figure. The film teeters between cavalier depictions of violence and sentimental hero-worship, and Luna is presented as not just a hero but a doomed savior and martyr. I’d say that Luna was depicted as downright messianic, and there’s a strong argument to be made that Heneral Luna functions as a contemporary, nationalistic pasyon (while I don’t feel qualified to develop the argument much further than that, I’d be very interested to read any academic or film critic essays that explore that avenue).

BuyBust

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I did not like BuyBust. I hated BuyBust. BuyBust (written by Anton C. Santamaria and Erik Matti, with Matti directing) is the story of a militarized squad of law enforcement officers fighting the war on drugs, trapped in the labyrinthine slums of one neighborhood and killed off one by one as they mow down waves of drug dealers, enforcers, and virtually rabid slum-dwellers. Matti co-wrote and directed On the Job, and I loved On the Job. Matti is actually a critic of the drug war and of Duterte and speaks quite intelligently about what exactly he was doing with this film (“Usually, with these adrenaline-pumping action movies, there are lulls in the middle to give the audience a break, but for this one we wanted to try something where it just doesn’t let up. It just goes on and on — even to the point of people getting tired,” he told the Hollywood Reporter.)

Still, whatever the filmmaker’s intentions (and regardless of the general critical response, which seems to be mostly favorable), I personally read much of the film as disgustingly classist and authoritarian. There are corrupt cops, and it slowly dawns on some of the surviving civilians that law enforcement and drug dealers are dragging them into a never-ending cycle of violence and vendettas that do not serve the common folk that both sides claim to protect, and there are some last-minute reveals about higher-level corruption and a cover-up of the violence, but I don’t think it would be too hard for a film-goer to interpret the film as pro-establishment. (Matti adds in that Reporter interview, “I wanted it to be as clear-minded and as neutral as possible . . . . I don’t really want to take sides and be pro-government or anti-government.”) After all, the cops, weighed down in body armor and piles of guns and ammo, are treated as the victims for much of the film, unfairly assaulted by the impoverished denizens of this back-alley realm.

The indigent population of Manila’s slums is treated as a horde of savage, mindless, and brutish animals. They are easily persuaded to blame law enforcement first for the deaths caused by the drug lords and then for the deaths caused by the police killing in self-defense against the early attacks by other homicidal slum-dwellers. The “heroes” are generic soldier types, a couple given exhausted tropes in place of actual personalities, most with no personality at all. Most of the film is spent in dark, drawn-out action sequences, and grotesque violence is apparently relished, especially when targeted against the poor. These exceedingly long, exceedingly brutal, exceedingly pointless fights pad out the run time to just over two hours, but with the plot of an hour-long TV special. In many ways, the experience was like that of watching a zombie horror film, or perhaps playing a segment of a zombie horror game, set in genuinely claustrophobic, winding, gritty urban slums (this is hardly a unique observation; while I felt clever in drawing the connection, apparently just about everyone else did as well, and Matti himself talks about “the zombie film without zombies idea” in that Reporter interview–and honestly, the interview is rather fascinating, and I’d encourage you to skip the movie and read that instead, or at least to read it first before going into the film).

There are two “twists” at the end of the film that are both pedestrian and unsurprising. First, the surviving slum-dwellers reject both sides and demand that what’s left of law enforcement and criminals leave. Second, we learn–gasp!–that there were higher-level corrupt police officers who use the cycle of raids as a way to profit off the drug lords.

I will say that I would have been more interested in the civilians’ final decision of non-interference and independence if we hadn’t had to watch them be butchered by the dozens, often in horrifying ways, up to that point. While Matti apparently tried to avoid an anti-poor take, the film still reeks of it to me.

The most powerful moment of the film is the closing sequence, in which a news report says that a drug lord was captured with thirteen dead, while we know that the crime boss had in fact been killed, and the camera pans across the slums in the daylight, covered in the bodies of dozens of the fallen. That moment is dramatic and ironic and poignant, but it’s too late to course-correct for the brutal two-hour drag leading up to it.

In conclusion, I’d recommend Kita Kita, I thought that Heneral Luna was fine but not vital viewing, and I hated BuyBust.

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.