Filipino Director Erik Matti on Critiquing Duterte's Drug War in Brutal Action Flick 'BuyBust'

Viva Films
Erik Matti

The genre filmmaker's latest feature stars Anne Curtis as a drug enforcement officer fighting her way out of a Manila slum, as bodies pile up and all sides succumb to the logic of a zombie flick — with no side emerging untainted.

Filipino filmmaker Erik Matti was just starting production on his next, long-planned crime movie when Rodrigo Duterte, incoming president of the Philippines, began his chaotic and brutal war on drugs.

Matti had won acclaim at home and abroad with taut, street-smart crime thrillers like On the Job (2013) and Honor Thy Father (2015), which premiered at Cannes and Toronto, respectively. With his latest project, what would become BuyBust, Matti intended to make his first full-scale action epic, building a story around Philippine Drug Enforcement Agents who are forced to fight for survival after a bust goes wrong in a Manila slum.

But when Duterte's new regime came into power in mid-2016 and began dispatching Filipino police on wave after wave of real-life deadly drug raids — with the president also gleefully urging ordinary citizens to take up arms and execute drug users freely — Matti says he knew his film would have to change to encompass the country's new social reality (human rights groups estimate Duterte's drug war has resulted in over 12,000 casualties across the Philippines, with scores of innocent or falsely accused bystanders killed).

BuyBust was shot on a custom-built recreation of a Manila slum spanning some 86,000 square feet of sets, making it one of the most ambitious Filipino action films mounted in years. Playing against type, Filipino-Australian actress Anne Curtis stars — convincingly — as a rookie cop who joins an elite anti-narcotics squad. Rushed into a poorly planned buy-bust mission, her squad finds themselves trapped in the most dangerous slum in Manila, with drug lords, disaffected villagers and corrupt fellow narcotics agents all bearing down and coming for blood. The desperate conditions are such that no side emerges without moral compromise. 

The film premiered at the New York Asian Film Festival earlier this year and launched globally on Netflix on Nov. 12 (the streaming platform bought into the film early after seeing a preproduction test). It screened at the International Film Festival and Awards Macao (IFFAM) this week. 

Matti is currently at work on a film sequel to On the Job, as well as a stand-alone miniseries based on the franchise for the Southeast Asian streaming platform HOOQ.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Matti on the sidelines of IFFAM earlier this week to discuss the development of BuyBust's distinctive "zombie movie without zombies" action style, how the film's own police consultant was killed in the drug war shortly after production and the reaction to the film at home in the Philippines. 

Between your breakout crime thriller On the Job (2013) and your latest feature BuyBust (2018), much has changed in the Philippines. Did you feel you had to adjust your approach to making a Manila-set crime film given the realities of the Drug War?

We started working on this film two years before it started production and we had a pretty concrete idea of how we were going to go about it back then. We wanted it to be a relentless thrill ride. Usually, with these adrenaline-pumping action movies, there are lulls in the middle to give the audience a break, but for this one we wanted to try something where it just doesn't let up. It just goes on and on — even to the point of people getting tired. So, that was the main idea we had.

We got about one-fourth of the way into production when the new [Duterte government] came in and brought in this really strong war on drugs. From then on, we felt it was our responsibility as filmmakers to make the film aware of what's going on in the country, and not just be in a bubble. I couldn't just have a devil-may-care attitude about this. We were very conscious to do the film in relation to what's happening in the relevant times of the Philippines. I felt these issues could still work with our original idea of a relentless action film though. So, I just did a lot of additional research. 

What did that entail?

We employed drug agents on the set. Every day they were there, primarily for jargon and for getting conversational stuff right. But, aside from that, it was really to help us find out what's happening on the ground. Of course, I was skeptical at first, that these drug agents would sugarcoat what's really going on out there, you know? But they were open about it. They were open about how messy it could get.

The main drug agent who consulted for us the whole time we were shooting — who provided us with the government PR slant, but at the same time, the real score — he died two weeks after we finished shooting the film. He was shot and killed outside of his house. Not in relation to the film, but in relation to his work in the drug war.

When the drug war began, the responsibility of cleaning things up fell upon the shoulders of the drug agents. But some of these drug agents — which is a big part of the end of the film — had existing linkages to drug dealers. So there's an in-war going on between agents as well. That's how our consultant ended up. He wasn't killed by a drug dealer; he was killed by a fellow agent, because he was going after someone they were protecting.

How did the film's stance on the drug war evolve, since the drug war was still just emerging at the time that you began shooting?

When the new government stepped in, I was rewriting the film as we went along. But I was quite aware that I didn't want the movie to be like a rant on Facebook. I wanted it to be as clear-minded and as neutral as possible — a sensible analysis of the war on drugs. That's why I felt, OK, we need to have three sectors present — the drug agents, the drug dealers and the local people — and we need to paint them all as gray as possible. None of them should be black or white. The locals were, of course, were part of the zombie film without zombies idea.

It does really start to feel like a zombie film, but one in which zombies are fighting zombies.

Yeah, exactly. After we finished the film, everyone was asking for my specific point of view, and I don't really want to take sides and be pro-government or anti-government. My biggest statement is there in the last shot, when the camera goes up in the sky and flies over the slum, and everyone down below is dead. The casualties don't go to just the drug dealers, or the users, or even the drug agents themselves. The drug war doesn't spare anybody. This is my cynical message.

One moment that gave me pause was when the hero, played by Anne Curtis, shoots the first corrupt drug agent, basically committing an extra-judicial killing. Her partner then says, "You're not the law." What was your thinking behind her actions in that situation?

I really wanted that from the very beginning. My writer didn't agree with me. Our consultants didn't agree with me. Michiko [Yamamoto], who is my partner and co-wrote On the Job with me, also didn't like the decision. Everyone thought my protagonist should not do that.

But, you know, I was painting Gracia ni Maria (the Manila slum where the film is set) as a place where you could make stupid decisions. I wanted to ask what makes the brutality of this drug war exist in the real world. And of course, it's that everyone is really just trying to survive in the midst of it. Sometimes, even somebody as clear-minded and heroic as the protagonist, Anne, could just decide to just get rid of someone because she might be thinking, "It's either him or me." Everybody's watching their backs and no one is sure who their allies are. It's chaos.

Of course, this scene is also highlighting another important reality of the drug war: you can kill anybody, and since it's in the name of the drug war, you can get off scot-free.

Do you think that scene changes the audience's view of Anne's character?

That was the fear. Would we still root for her? I think we can, because it was grounded in her own righteousness — even if it was a terrible mistake. But it should still stick with the audience in the back of their minds, too.

There's that other scene where Anne grabs a young teenage girl in glasses, who was about to kill her and they both sort of snap out of it, and Anne realizes she's just a nice, nerdy kid and lets her go. And then you see that if she hadn't let her go, another villager was prepared to shoot Anne in the back. It seemed like a little microcosm for how the violence could perhaps stop.

Yes, I think it is. On top of that, I didn't want to do an anti-poor movie. I needed these moments of insight to neutralize that reading. If it was set in a middle-class suburban village, I wouldn't have that burden. But this where the worst of the drug war is happening, in these slum areas, and I didn't want people thinking that we're just reveling in the violence, and that no one is thinking sensibly down there on the ground.

What did you take away from how the film was received in the Philippines — critically, commercially or from the general moviegoing public?

Commercially, we did well. We didn't foresee that it was going to get an R16 rating (The Philippines has three R ratings — R13, R16 and R18, which correspond to the minimum age admitted). We were hoping for an R13 and I was even willing to consider making some cuts, but [the ratings board] said the movie worked really well as it was and they didn't want to water it down. So we made just one minor cut and stuck with R16.

We still got really good traction with the audience. A lot of repeat viewings, and they seemed to dig the vibe of the film.

There was one person — because I have been critical of the government on Twitter — who rallied against the film, saying it should be boycotted. I don't really know how many people were affected by that. Maybe there were just four of them, or maybe 10,000 of them. The film made money though.

This was your first full-bore action film, right? What was undertaking the genre like for you?

What I've really loved most of all is that there is a string of action films being produced in the Philippines now, since BuyBust came out. Action movies had died a long time ago in the Philippines, but the genre is reviving, and that's kind of why we wanted to make this movie in the first place.

I was sort of nervous about it though. Before shooting, when we got Anne Curtis — who is a big star in the Philippines — to be part of it, I talked to her and I said, "You know, I haven't done action movies because they're actually really tough to do right." So we shot and edited a short proof of concept, and that's what actually got us our sales deal with Netflix before we even had a script.

You mentioned how you wanted to characterize the drug war as this relentless zombie-like battle, where the bodies just keep piling up on every side. What was your vision for how the fight scenes would be styled?

Number one, I wanted to do a Filipino action film that, in relation to all of the other Asian action movies, has a unique voice and vibe of its own. We're not Kung Fu people; we're not Muay Thai people. Those fighting styles are very precise and their movies are about showing off amazing technique.

Yes, we have Filipino martial arts, but what I did is looked at a lot of YouTube videos of people actually brawling in the Philippines. And what I took from that is that Filipino fighting is dirty, it's gritty and it's brutal — it's about survival at all costs. That's what I wanted.