Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Buybust is a fun, crazy and timely action spectacle

"This is bigger than us," PDEA agent Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis) tells a disgruntled citizen as she tries to exit the labyrinthine maze of barangay Grasya ni Maria. And she's right - for all the action and spectacle of Erik Matti's latest film, Buybust, the true villains of the film are nowhere to be seen - all of the characters you see in the movie are merely pawns playing out a grander, ever complex game aimed at enriching those currently in power.

At first, the film looks straightforward: Manigan and her squad go to Grasya ni Maria to capture drug lord Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde) via a buy bust operation. But the bust goes wrong, and Manigan and co. are beset by groups of hired goons and civilians out for their blood.

During a Q and A at an advanced screening of the film, Director Erik Matti likened making the film to making a "zombie movie without zombies." And in watching the film, it makes sense: people swarm and ambush Manigan and her squad at every turn. These people are driven by anger and revenge, and for most of the film, the priority for Manigan and co. is simply to stay alive and get out of the maze. But not all "zombies" are equal: some of them are not hired goons, but parents and relatives wanting justice for their loved ones. In one sequence, Manigan and her partner Yatco (Brandon Vera) face off against an alley of widows and widowers, all seeking to beat the duo to death. 

When the film pauses to gather itself in between scenes of carnage, the human toll of the drug war is shown to us in grisly detail, exemplified beautifully by one shot where Manigan wakes up in a cemetery, the frame filled with fresh corpses. No one in this film is stereotypically good, even Manigan herself engages in questionable behavior. In fact, it's hard to consider Manigan or anyone else in the film as heroes, as everyone in the film operates in a gray moral landscape. There are no good guys and bad guys, only pawns and puppetmasters. But when survival is the priority, all talk about justice and morality goes out the window.

The film is a technical marvel, as action setpieces flow seamlessly from one part to the other. People have compared the film to Gareth Evans' The Raid (2011), but the way the film is shot borrows more from the Bourne film series and from zombie films like the recent Train to Busan. In contrast to what we see in Buybust, Evans's work in the two Raid films doesn't use a lot of cuts, using long takes and the physicality of his actors to ratchet up the action to eleven and never let up. We see this especially in the sequel to the Raid, Raid 2: Berandal (2014), one of the best action films of the last decade. 

So at first the action in Buybust is cut briskly and shot via handheld cameras, making it hard to parse what is going on. But as the film goes on, Matti relies more on wider and more inventive shots instead of fast cuts, culminating in an amazing one-take sequence featuring Anne Curtis which ranks as one of the year's most remarkable sequences in local film. And the action that goes on is brutal: no one is safe from the violence that goes on in the film, with many people dying or getting maimed in  creative ways.

The Pinoy Action Film has long been in a state of living death, stuck in its heyday and unable to innovate and push the genre forward. Buybust is a breath of fresh air to the genre, as it delivers a capable product that is entertaining and politically aware at the same time.

No comments: