Taking a stab at appreciating âEâ
Taking a stab at appreciating ‘E’
KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson (The Philippine Star) - August 13, 2018 - 12:00am

On CNN recently, Fareed Zakaria interviewed Annette Insdorf, Professor of Film at Columbia University. Introduced as the most influential academic mentor he ever had, she was asked to repeat her thesis that the opening scenes of any film are the most crucial, as they provide the key to further enjoyment.

Shown were brief excerpts as examples, from Schindler’s List, The Godfather, and The Graduate.

Prof. Insdorf annotated what she found as precious in each of these “cinematic overtures,” such as the first line uttered in The Godfather: “I believe in  America” — by an Italian immigrant paying a courtesy call on Don Corleone, whose wave of a hand is the first inkling of his presence. The camera cuts to Marlon Brando full face, then pulls out to reveal him stroking a cat, as well as the presence of two other Mafiosi in the room.

With The Graduate, it’s a zoom-out-to-freeze showing Dustin Hoffman in a plane with other passengers, his face blank over the prospect of flying back home to his parents after college. The next scene shows him catatonically walking against a gray wall at the airport. Camera then focuses on his suitcase moving along on a conveyor belt, passing a sign that alerts passengers to “make sure they match,” before Hoffman picks it up.

Indeed, Prof. Insdorf stressed, film language employs distinct visual metaphors much as poetry does.

Beginning my appreciation of BuyBust, I’d say that its opening scene, the interrogation of a drug pusher by a couple of PDEA agents in a nondescript room, while taut with the expectation of violence, hardly provides an arresting start. It simply establishes a premise, that a big-time supplier can finally be bagged in an operation involving the pusher turned stoolie.

Follow more routinary scenes, of PDEA teams undergoing training, in the process introducing the lead character of Nina Masigan (Anne Curtis), with a back story of her former squad having been wiped out, thus maybe marking her out as jinxed.

Fellow trainee Rico Yatco (Brandon Vera) and the team leader (Victor Neri) are also introduced, as are others in the squad, which is then given the assignment of arresting Biggie Chen in a buy-bust operation.

Nothing remarkable happens in these opening sequences, except that we are put on notice with the gritty cinematography, editing, sound, music score, production values and ensemble acting, which are all above par.

But the epiphany doesn’t happen until the last few minutes, when the climactic rubout ties up a neat if ironic ribbon of understanding about the drug war’s spawn of a symbiosis between suppliers and police agents. The devious dance of the devils.

This is followed by a remarkable closing shot — flat-lay aerial of the slum community with scores of dead bodies splayed out on rooftops — that then tilts up for further context, revealing communities beyond, from lower middle-class to the modern urban skyline of gleaming high-rises. The layers of our metropolis. 

In between, served up is non-stop fired-up action — riveting or repulsive depending on one’s mindset. Relentless, over-the-top violence, an almost tiresome choreography of increasing desperation. The PDEA squad is trapped in a maze of unreality, with the slum-dwellers initially reinforcing the drug lord’s army intent on wiping out the intruders. 

Now, one tends to watch an action film with less of the suspension of disbelief granted a fantasy film with flying super-heroes, or a musical where a couple walking down a lane suddenly breaks out into dance and song, which isn’t a cappella.

Most presentations of violence in films are decidedly a departure from the kind we see in real life or as CCTV footage, with all the bumbling physical action. In a movie, of course it’s all idealized to seamless perfection.

We are credulous to the pedigree of action, until we reach a point when we give up on our parameters of disbelief. Surely, a slip of a girl like Nina, however trained she’s been as a warrior, can’t be that indestructible. Surely, any human face that’s hit with a brass knuckle will suffer a broken nose.

But in BuyBust, she repeatedly wards off droves of attackers, just as the hulking hunk Yatco does. While she can’t lift a motorcycle to hurl at its fallen tandem riders, she does him better when she charges unarmed against a faux-macho troop and mows them all down. 

At this point I forgive the redundancy of her courage and of the entire tapestry of violent action. I understand why it’s the manly Yatco who uses garden shears to behead a woman. I realize that the “squatters” who’ve been driven to frenzy as a horde of zombies are also part of hyperbolic metaphor.

Whether it’s a subtle dagger as a political statement or a bludgeoning axe is irrelevant. Why, I can even disregard that as filmic intention or ambition. While blurring realism, director Eric Matti enjoys his power of transcendence over strict genres or formulas. He’s having his cake and gorging on it, too. I’m enjoying it that he’s enjoying himself, not in self-servicing fashion but as master manipulator.  

That BuyBust provokes manifold biases and discourse tells me that he’s crafted a poem of a myriad interpretations. Mine may not even be halfway correct. But it’s a legit stab.

The slumdog zombies have a counterpart in the funeral crowd that rebels against the druggies, while a middle force is represented by the pragmatic man who’ll lend a useless cellphone but refuse to risk helping the trapped agents escape, as are the countless others in their shuttered hovels who demand the peace of temporary sleep.

Maybe I just have a soft spot for Matti, who to my taste has made some of the most memorable Filipino films in the past decade or so. The actors in this movie are all superb, and all the elements of quality filmmaking are gratifyingly addressed.

He’s both technically and intellectually adept. The drug lord has Chen for a surname, while his scrawny lieutenant is called Chongki. The confrontations climax with agaw-baril that actually works. The radio announces that 13 died in the overnight mayhem, but it’s a hundred bodies on those rooftops. Why, even fake news is faked.

The digs at our current socio-political state are all as legit as my wild stab.

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