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: “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.