‘BuyBust’ is a Tremendous Achievement

The latest film from director Erik Matti makes no compromises

by Philbert Dy

BuyBust opens on an interrogation. Criminal informant Teban (Alex Calleja) agrees to take part in a buy-bust operation to root out the elusive drug lord Biggie Chen. Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis-Smith) is a member of elite PDEA operatives tasked with pulling off the deal. Plans change, and the team ends up having to go into Gracia ni Maria, a labyrinthine slum in the heart of the city. It quickly becomes clear that things aren’t going to go their way, and Manigan and her team are trapped inside the slum, outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless gang of criminal adversaries.

It sounds simple, but it isn’t. The movie has got a lot on its mind. This isn’t just a simple confrontation between criminals and police. There are other elements at play: big, complicating factors that make the resulting violence much more meaningful. The film is a spectacular, thoroughly entertaining display of technical skill, delivering a level of filmmaking that should be held up as the new standard for this country’s cinema. But it is also a thoughtful, harrowing dissection of the drug war and this current era of violence.

But we can put that aside for now. The movie is compelling taken purely as an action movie. Once things go wrong in this movie, it becomes a brutal, almost nonstop fight to get out. The characters are facing threats from every corner of the slum, the baddies often swarming them like zombies, Every fight feels like a desperate brawl, the movie eschewing tighter choreography in favor of more chaotic, more harrowing combat. The movie also happens to put together one of the most ambitious and technically impressive action sequences in all of our cinema: a breathless, three-minute fight sequence  filmed in one unbroken take, that takes the main character up and down multiple levels of the film’s slum setting, taking on hordes of thugs in the rain.

It is an exhausting sequence that only seems possible in the context of this movie. It is sequence that requires a lot more planning and effort and commitment than is usually allowed in a Filipino film. But that is what makes this movie so special. It just looks past limitations, working harder to create something truly remarkable. That approach shows up in all the elements of the movie. Take note of the score, for example, which is unusually varied in style and scope. Take note of the use of native instruments, particular the kubing, which follows Manigan throughout the movie.

Or notice the colors, the rich neons that provide a contrasting glow to this dark underworld. Every bit of this film feels like it’s part of a greater design, everything combining to create a singular effect that heightens every moment. There is equal commitment from the cast, as well. Anne Curtis-Smith plays against type magnificently, and it is a great credit to her that she does a lot of the fighting and stunts herself. It is a remarkable thing to see her doing a lot of this stuff. Brandon Vera provides a very solid presence, his sheer physicality just taking things to another level. The film also gets some really rich performances from the supporting cast, with Levi Ignacio, Alex Calleja, and Arjo Atayde in particular standing out.

And given all that, BuyBust doesn’t settle for empty spectacle, or technical wizardry. This is a movie that just refuses to compromise, unwilling to give up substance in favor of all that action flash. And so, in the midst of this genuinely thrilling film, we are exposed to the greater consequences of this drug war, and the gross power games that are being played under its mandate. Even in this, the movie just takes things to another level, putting in more work than what might be expected, delivering bigger gains than we might be used to. BuyBust is the product of people who just refuse to settle for less.

BuyBust opens in cinemas on August 1