NYAFF 2018 Closing Night: BUYBUST is a Worthy Choice for the Ultimate Festival Slot

The New York Asian Film Festival took place between June 29 and July 15 in Manhattan. For more information about films and events, click here.

At this point, the NYAFF presenting an absolute barn burner for their closing night selection is a foregone conclusion. Last year blessed us with the truly insane wonder that is The Villainess; the year before gave me my personal favorite from that year’s collection of films, The Tenants Downstairs, which I… never got around to writing a review for.

Mea culpa.

At any rate, BuyBust more than earns its place among those hallowed ranks.

Director Erik Matti, having had his 2013 thriller On The Job screened just the day before in the festival, shows just how much he’s grown as a filmmaker in the interim. Which is not to belittle On The Job in any way; its aims are very different, and it’s a quite effective thriller.

But in terms of ambition, scale, choreography, and pure adrenaline, it’s not even a competition: BuyBust is in another league.

The story is simple yet effective: through the efforts of a scuzzy informant, an elite team of anti-narcotics officers devise an elaborate mission to bring in the reclusive drug kingpin Biggie Chen. But circumstances (and the possible interference of a mole) force the squad to change their plans and follow their quarry to Gracia Ni Maria, a labyrinthine slum that handily doubles as a deathtrap to outsiders.

From there, events go just as terribly as a bloodthirsty audience might hope.

It is, of course, a setup in the grand tradition of Assault on Precinct 13 and other such siege movies. But in a sense, that’s a reduction of the tricky and impressive balance that BuyBust manages to enact.

To tie a successful, high quality film to a… lower quality one that has an unfortunate reptile brain appeal… BuyBust is not unlike the favela sequence from Bad Boys 2, stretched out to feature length and helmed by a filmmaker with an actual interest in the human cost of the war on drugs.

This is the secret weapon of the film: there are no bystanders in the world of BuyBust. Because there are no bystanders in war. It raises the stakes dramatically and forces the audience to confront the concept of collateral damage in ways that make you question the logic of applying military force to complex, deeply human problems.

This interest is used to great effect in the first act of the film, where all the elite squads recon and tactical maneuvers unfold in the unknowing midst of an utterly ambivalent citizenry. Snatches of lives lived, oblivious to the coming firestorm ground the story in something human, make it more than just another shoot-em-up.

But lest we get hung up on all the political/sociological implications, this is, above all else, a delivery vehicle for adrenalized action. But even here, Matti takes a tactic that seems strangely innovative: instead of building to a release and attempting to maintain that level of intensity, Matti slowly ratchets up the tension, gradually turning up the heat and increasing the scope and the stakes until the audience is fully embroiled in the ensuing chaos.

It’s a marked contrast with the movie most people were comparing it to walking out of the theater, The Raid, which started at an 11 and managed to maintain it for essentially the entire length. Which was unquestionably an impressive feat. But there’s a strong argument to be made that Matti’s technique is the superior one, letting suspense give way to a rush of cathartic violence which in turn gives way back to suspense as the hopelessness of our heroes situation becomes ever clearer.

In the Q&A following the film, Matti talked about how he and his action team watched YouTube videos of fights in search of inspiration, and it’s an unusual choice that adds a rawer feel than we’re used to in these sorts of films, one that takes a bit of getting used to. It’s a brutal, chaotic, unpredictable style, and when it started I was worried it was going to be more of that shakycam, cut-to-shit garbage that passes for action in most quarters these days.

But it’s all part of the technique as gradually the camera re-centers, expands its horizons, and shows us the bigger picture, culminating (in terms of style if not in plotting) with a three minute long take where whatever’s left of the squad try to fight their way on and off of multiple rooftops. Three days and 40 takes went into the making of this set piece, and judging by the absolute absence of breath in the audience for the entirety of it, the effort was well worth it.

Character is something of a secondary concern, focused as the movie (and literally everyone in it) is on mere survival, but all the actors get their chance to sketch in the margins and insert signs of life into what could be stiff action figures. It’s kind of exasperating that we still have to make a note of it when an action movie has a female lead, but it certainly bears noting in this case, if for no other reason than how deeply impressive Anne Curtis is in the role. As the hard edged maverick Manigan, Curtis is miles away from the winsome wage slave she played in Sid And Aya: Not a Love Story, which actually played earlier in the day.

One could get whiplash.

Just as impressive is MMA fighter Brandon Vera, making his film debut as the hulking Yatco. The not-so-gentle giant makes a hell of a first impression, as does the comedy relief of Alex Calleja as hapless middleman Teban, roped into a situation he’s not even remotely equipped to handle.

The film excels at creating a vile band of villains to menace Manigan, Yatco, and their crew, including Levi Ignacio’s hissable Chongki and Arjo Atayde as the elusive Biggie Chen, whose smarmy, utterly faithless musings make a huge impact with a small amount of screentime.

Watching these guys kill each other is high entertainment indeed.

It took longer than I’d like to admit for BuyBust to lock in for me. But once it did, it was obvious why it was chosen to be the film this year’s festival closed on. It’s the exact sort of movie you run out of the theater to rub your friends’ faces in the fact that they missed it. And those friends who missed the boat last year are the ones who show up next year.

Hell, that’s how they got me.

They’ll get you, too.

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