‘Alpha, The Right to Kill’: Film Review | San Sebastian 2018

Courtesy of San Sebastian International Film Festival
High-impact, but shallow.

Multiple award-winning Philippine director Brillante Mendoza’s latest effort, premiering at San Sebastian, tells the stories of two very different players in Manila’s drugs underworld.

With the aim of eradicating drugs crime, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte encourages both police and citizens to kill drug suspects and users, few questions asked. Via the Netflix-screened miniseries Amo and now Alpha, The Right to Kill, director Brillante Mendoza is one international chronicler of the effects of the policy, which aren’t pretty.

Feeling like a less-polished addendum to Amo, the high-energy but superficial Alpha is less in-your-face than some of Mendoza’s previous work, employing tried-and-true action-thriller methods to typically raw and grungy effect and documentary techniques to generate that insider feel. But little insider light is shed on what is effectively a massive scandal of state-sponsored killing. Between 2008 and 2012, Mendoza made major waves on the Euro festival circuit, but Alpha, despite its relative accessibility, seems unlikely to consolidate that success.

Young father and drugs pusher Elijah (Elijah Filamor) is first seen splicing crack cocaine into potatoes at his vegetable stall. He’s being checked out from across the street by cop Espino (Allen Dizon, reprising from Amo), who, following a chase through the market, enlists Elijah as his alpha, or informant.

Carefully staged and dramatically filmed, a military-style SWAT raid on Abel (Baron Geisler) ends with several dead bodies and a press conference during which the police, in an echo of the international press’ questioning of Duterte’s methods, clumsily tackle questions about international human rights by saying they’re defending them. This is Alpha’s elephant in the room, and Mendoza chooses to deal with it via brief TV clips rather than head on.

Instead, the focus shifts to Abel’s backpack, containing drugs that Elijah has rescued from the raid and that Espino picks up from him. Alpha goes on, none too subtly, to explore the parallels between Elijah and Espino, both taking huge risks while doing their best to raise their respective families and survive (in the case of Elijah) and get ahead (in the case of Espino).

More than for its storyline or style, both of which have been done to death since at least as far back as City of God and Elite Squad, Alpha is more valuable as a record of a city in the grip of fear of both its criminals and its government. Surely something has gone badly wrong in a society when not only is a young father forced to smuggle drugs in his baby’s diaper, but the police suspect him of doing so.

Alpha is equally interesting for some other tricks that the pushers use to avoid the long arm of the law. Forget the use of sophisticated technology: In Manila, apparently, not only potatoes but carrier pigeons are still being used to deliver stash, and indeed one of the birds, as hapless in its own way as Elijah, becomes a major plot point later on.

Stylistically, Alpha is instantly recognizable as Mendoza. Hand-held and often very wobbly camerawork, lengthy tracking shots, low lighting (and a consequent brown tinge over everything) and the use of drones are always at pains to emphasize that this could easily be a documentary about Manila — but rarely do things slow down enough for us to take away any distinctive glimpses of reality. There are several wrenching scenes of mothers and wives bewailing the loss of sons and husbands, and one brief shot of an elderly woman sitting forlornly by the roadside with a faraway expression may contain more truth about the social impact of Dutarte’s drugs war than all the film’s chase sequences put together — but such telling moments are few and far between.

The cast is a mixture of pros and non-pros. Dizon is a well-known figure in the Philippines, and his straight back and steely jaw deceptively suggest that he is indeed an upstanding member of the community. But as an actor, he (nor anyone else in the film) is given much to do; dialogue is limited and, when it comes, it’s strictly in the form of well-worn cliches, so that the police meetings in particular come over as quasi-comically amateurish.

Indeed, the character work is generally so slim as to suggest that Troy Espiritu’s script cares more about making a big statement about a damaged society than it does about the stories of the individuals who make up that society. This is one of way of guaranteeing that viewers of Alpha, after a brief shudder, will shrug their shoulders and move on.

Production companies: Center Stage Productions
Cast: Allen Dizon, Elijah Filamor, Baron Geisler
Director: Brillante Ma Mendoza
Screenwriter: Troy Espiritu
Producer: Carlo Valenzona
Executive producers: John de Jesus, David Kenneth Shaw
Director of photography: Joshua A. Reyles
Art director: Dante Mendoza
Editor: Diego Marx Dobles
Composer: Diwa de Leon
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival
Sales: Memento Films

94 minutes