Brillante Mendoza Butchers Truth in ‘Amo’

The series, available on Netflix, is a poor representative of the nation.

by Philbert Dy, art by Andrew Panopio

 

Amo isn’t the first piece of media to openly profess its support for this administration’s war on drugs. Movies like Across the Crescent Moon, D.A.D.: Durugin ang Droga, and Kamandag ng Droga have already made it into our cinemas, their stories built around pushing forward the narrative that the root cause of everything wrong in Filipino society is drugs, and that Duterte is the antidote.

 

What separates Amo from those other pieces of media is the degree of respectability brought on by the involvement of celebrated filmmaker Brillante Mendoza. It also happens to be on Netflix, which on its own gives the 13-episode series a sense of stature, as it is on a platform that houses some of the most respected content in the media landscape today.

 

 

But fundamentally, Amo isn’t really any different from the aforementioned movies. Having seen more than half of the series so far, there really isn’t a whole lot to it other than pushing the administration narrative that drugs are overly pervasive in Filipino society, and that it is the source of our very moral decay. The series starts out by following Joseph (Vince Rillon), a high school student who hangs with a bad crowd and gets involved with drugs. He starts out as basically a delivery boy for meth, but then is later recruited into some bigger business. His arc makes up the first eight episodes of the series, before completely shifting its focus to policeman Rod (Derek Ramsay), who is introduced as the one tasked with hunting down Joseph. But the last five episodes are about Rod taking part in an operation that is a clear reference to the Jee Ick-joo case.

 

It is hardly ever enough that they are just drug dealers: they are also liars, adulterers, and murderers. They are one-dimensional villains that serve no purpose to society.

 

It is worth noting that even in those last five episodes, which in theory should serve to balance out the larger narrative by indicting the police in taking part in a greater culture of corruption, the show makes its central thesis statement still stand out. The Jee Ick-joo analogue, a Japanese national, is proven to be a drug lord. There is a scene where he confesses to working for an international syndicate bringing drugs into the Philippines. A policeman character chides him, expressing nationalist sentiment as he blames foreigners for destroying the country. And at no point does the show try to make the connection between the culture of larger impunity with the brazenness with which these scalawags formulate their kidnapping scheme.

 

 

The argument that the show is simply trying to reflect the truth is immediately undone by its mangling of the Jee Ick-joo case. It is even less credible as it paints out Joseph’s story, which seems to just hang on to the idea that people involved in drugs are pretty much worthless. It is hardly ever enough that they are just drug dealers: they are also liars, adulterers, and murderers. They are one-dimensional villains that serve no purpose to society.

 

Whether or not one agrees with that idea, the show suffers for it, since its main character for the first eight episodes is one of these villains. Joseph is a really dull character, in spite of all the lurid situations that he gets into. The show has no interest in exploring who this character is, or what circumstances would lead him down such a dark path. The show can only imply that the general corrupting influence of the world of drugs is what led this young man astray. For the most part, Joseph just seems to be along for the ride, an almost passive observer to all the craziness going on around him.

 

 

And that’s what it’ll come to in the end. Politics aside, Amo is just really boring. Even if you put aside the sheer tedium of much of what happens on the show, there are still bigger issues that hamper the narrative. The characters don’t feel like they have real agency. The show takes it for granted that these characters are bad because of their involvement with drugs. So, they just keep doing bad things, even if it doesn’t really make sense in context, or even if they’re meant to be lying low to keep the heat off of them. The show doesn’t set out to make human beings. It creates, instead, the kind of straw men that are inevitably brought up in every argument about this current era of impunity.

 

 

I will admit that I would find it hard to accept any piece of art that falls on the side of defending this current war on drugs, which has led to the death of thousands of Filipinos. But I gave Amo every chance to win me over: perhaps through some bravura piece of filmmaking, or a compelling narrative that would actually make me question some of my own beliefs. But as much as Mendoza insists that Amo isn’t propaganda for the government, that’s still pretty much what it feels like. It is a dramatization of many of the talking points spouted by officials over these last two bloody years. Like the administration itself, it has crafted a narrative around drugs as a boogeyman, unwilling to look inward to find the cancer that’s really causing the rot.

 

Amo is streaming on Netflix.