Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Amo (Brillante Mendoza, 2018)

Who's the boss?

When Netflix announced that it was airing pro-Duterte filmmaker Brillante Mendoza mini-series (produced by TV5 Network), the intention was made clear from the get-go: to present "the other side of the coin" (as Mendoza states in an interview) of the drug war: "Yes, it (the drug war) is necessary for the Philippines--not only for the Philippines but also other countries afflicted with the drug problem." 

When interviewed by The Telegraph Mendoza's response (after the outraged response to his statement) was more measured: "This series will show the two sides of the coin," he says (italics mine). "The message is that we should all understand that there is a (drugs) situation in the Philippines…and now the government has really got very tough about it." He adds "I’m not saying that it should be addressed in the way that this government is dealing with it. But people tend to criticise and to give their opinions without even going deeper into the issue."

At least one human rights group has already voiced its opinion: The International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) on hearing Netflix's declaration that the series is a "bold and suspenseful show that has the potential of capturing thrill-seeking audiences worldwide" has replied in an open letter: "This is a humanitarian crisis, not entertainment fodder."

The series itself? Well let me tell you.

The season is divided into thirteen episodes--sounds expansive till you realize each episode is barely a half-hour long. The first story arc focuses on Joseph (Vince Rillon) a street-level dealer who appears on a list of suspects involved with drugs and his uncle Camilo (Allen Dizon) who deals with Joseph's problem. The second has Joseph recruited his brother-in-law Bino (Felix Roco) as courier dealing higher-end drugs--mixed-cocktail pills of 'green amore' (ecstasy, shabu (crystal meth), Cialis (a milder form of Viagra)). Third has Uncle Camilo partnering with fellow officer Rod (Derek Ramsey) to observe the activities of suspected drug lord Takeo (Yoshihiko Hara).

The series has been compared to Netflix's other drug crime drama Narcos though I see major differences: Narcos focused on the rise and fall of outsized real-life drug lord Pablo Escobar; Amo takes newspaper accounts and anecdotes from real life and presents them in a lightly fictionalized setting. Narcos relies heavily on voiceover narration to add context and link otherwise disparate storylines together; Amo does not (there are advantages and disadvantages to this). Narcos employs the cliched 'handheld footage cut to a frenetic rhythm' style but also on occasion settles down for portentous shots of sidelit figures discussing deep matters in shadowy rooms; Amo is more characteristic of Mendoza's earlier work: shaky-cam and nervous editing yes (might be a law when making contemporary urban noirs) but also night scenes shot under the amber glow of sodium street lamps.

One major difference: Narcos outlines events that happened decades ago, from the 70s up to the 90s; Amo presents events of the past year, roughly since Duterte took power. Narcos however imperfectly and clumsily (the endless voiceovers) dramatizes a narrative that has already been pored over and evaluated by historians and by those involved. Amo sips of events happening now and by appropriating what is whispered and speculated rather than what has been recorded and vetted the series--intentionally or not--adds its own interpretation to those events. The series shapes what may be into what it believes is, and because this is Netflix--the single most popular online streaming platform in the world, not just the Philippines or the United States--the series does so with a voice all out of proportion to any other voices raised in contradiction. 

In other words Mendoza who has said time and time again that he is for Duterte's war on drugs has found a loudspeaker louder and more powerful than anything he has used before. And Netflix has a potential hit on its hands made out of material with questionable authenticity, not to mention sincerity.  

Take for example the first story arc. Joseph's activities are for the most part what we know or hear about street-level pushers: he leads the life of an ordinary student, sneaks out to sell packets of meth to neighbors and friends. Later Joseph (skip the next two paragraphs if you plan to watch the series) witnesses an EJK--an extra-judicial killing as these murders have come to be known, performed by the police--and it's significant that Mendoza frames it thusly: the victim is a known dealer (we have seen him working with Joseph--we know he's guilty because the camera tells us so, though in real life killers don't enjoy the privilege of a nearby camera recording their victims' guilt). A group of rappers sing the following words: "I will take the law into my own hands / Don't give a damn about the consequences...No man a comrade but a judge / No more time to let you stay longer / I'll get you first before you finish us all...The diseased tree must be cut down."

The killing itself is done offscreen, with a van nearby and a gun going off in the shadows; Mendoza is enough of an artist (but we know this from his previous work) to imply rather than directly show the police directly involved. Instead he leaves it to his rapper-chorus to tell us what to think or feel about the whole thing--in effect justifying the officers' terrible but necessary actions.*

*(The use of rap calls to mind Treb Monteras II's Respeto--calls to mind the link between rap and the drug business, or war if you like. But Monteras does more than use the music as ambiance filler; like Mario O'Hara in an earlier film about vigilante killings he celebrates Filipino poetry's ability to heighten emotional stakes, express outrage (as many of the characters in his film do), ultimately sharpen one's sense of tragedy. Mendoza uses rap more like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action and--as mentioned--developing an argument for state-sponsored murder)

Later Joseph identifies a fellow gang member as an informer, partly responsible for the killing; the gang decides to retaliate and how they retaliate is significant (again, skip the next two paragraphs if): they stab the informer to death (the stabbing explicit and protracted, unlike the police killing), hang him up against a wall, hang a cardboard sign on his body ("Huwag tularan, adik ako!" (Don't imitate, I'm an addict!)). One of the Duterte regime's most common explanations for EJKs is that they were performed by gang members against one another, and this sequence reinforces that narrative--with one jarring detail: EJKs are usually done with guns, the police's preferred method of execution. Granted a low-level street gang probably could not afford a firearm, why try pin this death on the police? Especially as few are likely to believe them?

The second story arc doesn't add much one way or another except to say that there's more to the story than street-level dealing, and that the cocktail drug scene is sexier and more glamorous, with considerably more money involved. Joseph goes to bed with a number of folks including a wealthy male buyer (Implying what exactly--that homosexualityis a rich man's decadence? Not sure I like that). The cops (again skip the rest of this paragraph if) descend on all wrongdoers involved with breathtaking alacrity, reducing this arc to a Public Service Announcement, only with an insidious possibly unintentional implication: the police (and mainstream media) only care when the pretty daughter of a rich man dies, and her passing is plastered across the front pages in large headlines. The poor? Fuck em.

The third story arc features the return of Joseph's rather shady uncle Camilo. Camilo had been instrumental in getting Joseph off the drug list, implying that yes the series is aware of corruption among officers' ranks (note that throughout the arc the list's accuracy is never really questioned--is in fact 'proven' by the presence of Joseph's name). Here Camilo with newcomer Rod conspire to kidnap Takeo and again a jarring detail (skip the next three paragraphs if): if their intent was to raise money for themselves why conduct the kidnapping as if it was a police raid? The maids and family members later testify that the men shouted "Police!" while entering the house--which when I reviewed the scene the men do not do (possibly Mendoza is suggesting the witnesses misremembered; possibly it's an inconsistency no one bothered to explain); later the men intimidate Takeo into opening his safe, and upon finding bags of what look like cocaine immediately declare him 'under arrest,' citing specific laws he has broken. 

In the middle of a kidnapping? Really? 

Again justice descends on the wrongdoers with breathtaking speed, leaving one with the thought that "If the Philippine police worked this fast in real life we wouldn't have a drug problem. Or crime problem. Or any problems in the country whatsoever." Camilo's boss blusters and bluffs and at one point you wonder if he'll perform his own act of vigilante justice...but no he ultimately defers to the law, giving up a much chastened Camilo to the authorities and the waiting press.

Looking at the series' overall structure can be instructive: begins with street-level crime, explaining and justifying along the way the incidental killings (either they're a tragic necessity or a frameup staged by drug gangs); moves up the social ladder to show even the upper middle class affected (swift justice delivered to those with the money and influence); moves higher up to show us corruption even within the police force. Where in Narco the all-too-real Pablo Escobar dominates and presides over the drug gang's activities here we have no shadowy high figure to point at, either on the drugs side or law-enforcement side. 

O yes--there's Takeo. But where the real-life kidnap victim (a South Korean businessman Jee Ick-Joo) was probably innocent (no evidence has been produced otherwise) in the series he's shown (again thanks to a subjective handheld camera) to be guilty. Dramatizations often involve changes in details to streamline the story or improve the impact, but I find this particular change particularly repulsive. 

Also implicit in the structure: EJKs are the first addressed and they're clumsily explained away, suggesting the issue--involving the urban poor--is low priority. Second is the use of cocktail drugs by the middle and upper classes, suggesting the drug war is infiltrating your living rooms and bedrooms. Third and subtlest is the issue of foreign casualties: since international outcry seems to be especially damaging the series sacrifices the reputation of some police officers--up to a specific rank (Camilo's boss), but no higher. From this unspoken calculus we can see how much the Duterte government values the life of a (wealthy, entrepreneurial) foreign national as compared to a (poor, unconnected) local nobody.

In the end I don't think we should focus on what Amo says--a fairly well done urban noir considering the budget and overlooking a few gigantic loopholes--as on what the series doesn't say. The series refuses to suggest that anything Duterte has said and done (aside from a few speeches droning faintly in the background) has anything to do with what's happening. The series refuses to endorse or fully acknowledge the press' alternative interpretation: that there is a tacit government policy of killing low-level low-income citizens involved in drugs, that this 'war' Duterte proposed (and is presently waging) was his quick and dirty--and successful--way of grabbing attention (not to mention votes); and that this 'war' isn't working all that well (as if in response each arc is careful to end with either a successful arrest or an armed perpetrator falling in a hail of gunfire); if anything the press is depicted as an annoyance, shoving microphones in faces and asking inane questions, always a step behind realizing what's really going on. And the series refuses to consider the resistance growing among Filipinos, folks who have either been directly affected--their friends and loved ones cut down--or have seen what's going on, and are increasingly speaking out against this so-called 'war on drugs.' 

On all three issues (Duterte; the press and government policy; the need--or not--to wage a drug war) the series' silence is deafening. 

Amo is a particularly sharp disappointment considering what Mendoza himself has done before. Ma Rosa is to my mind a far more persuasive take on the drug scene, showing us not just the corrupt police practice of 'swap heads'--either raising funds or giving up names to avoid arrest (practiced under previous president Benigno 'Noynoy' Aquino's administration, though still apparently being practiced today)--but also the dealers' desperation in trying to extricate themselves from the officers' clutches. Both sides of the coin, presented with unvarnished honesty.

But if I had to pick the definitive treatment on the subject I'd pick The Wire--David Simon's classic series on the Baltimore drug scene stuffed with yes street-level drug dealing and yes shaky-cam footage and jangling editing. But the series eventually takes on so much more, examining each social institution--labor unions, the local government, the school system, the press--exposing the flaws in each and how they affect and reinforce the inertia of what is against what should be. The Wire is ultimately Dickensian in scope and ambition, suggesting in its hour-long episodes (compared to Amo's half-hour squibs) and lengthy dialogues (where two or more men familiar with the milieu try make sense of it all) the screwed-up labyrinthine intricacies of our established social institutions both legal and extralegal. 

And what do these men cursed with knowing too much, with knowing what's really going, on conclude? That it's all fucked up but it's what we got, and we have to work with it. And if we don't--there's a price to pay.**

**(I'm thinking in particular of the final season (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen The Wire!) where McNulty and Freamon cross a line and start manufacturing evidence to try catch drug lord Marlo Stanfield. They take it as far as it can go but eventually the lie is found out. As a result Stanfield evades arrest, but is forced out of the drug business; McNulty and Freamon end their careers as law enforcers. They get what they want but lose what they value--or vice versa, depending on how you want to look at it. Institutions working out their issues, in an imperfect but implacable manner)

Where The Wire is an epic mural filled with breathtakingly executed marginalia Amo feels like one of those quickie thumbprints on a questionable website, fuzzy and lacking in detail. I was hoping for better from the first-ever Filipino series presented by Netflix, and from a filmmaker whose previous works I admire.

First published in Businessworld 5.11.18 

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