TV REVIEW | Brillante Mendoza’s ‘Amo’

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Vince Rillon as Joseph.

The first ever Philippine series to get on Netflix is Brillante Mendoza’s controversial drug war drama “Amo.” Even prior to the show’s world premiere last April 9, 2018 on the giant global streaming service, a fraction of Filipinos had already been rioting in virtual roads, protesting what they believe is a propagandist show that “glorifies” the war on drugs.

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After finishing all 13 episodes of “Amo,” one can surmise it is not a propaganda, but a graphic, intensive immersion into the illegal drug trade propelled by poverty and greed. It feels like a fleshed-out version of Mendoza’s 2016 riveting film “Ma’Rosa,” extending the tale of the drug trade to new characters, and incorporating subplots inspired by real events.

In Mendoza’s talk with CNC, he divulged that the series is 70 percent fact and 30 percent fiction. The renowned director revealed that he’s been doing hands-on research in Manila’s underbelly, interviewing both illegal drug users and cops, and retelling their experiences for “Amo.”

The central character in “Amo” is Joseph (Vince Rillon), a high school student peddling crystal meth to support his mom and disabled dad. Joseph has an uncle cop, Camilo (Allen Dizon), who keeps his nephew out of trouble.

Allen Dizon as a dirty cop.
Allen Dizon as a dirty cop.

Each episode runs an average of 20 minutes, gradually introducing a trickle of new characters, further immersing the viewer into the intricate web of the illegal drug trade in the midst of Operation Tokhang. In a brisk style, Mendoza captures the underground operation of users, pushers, their loved ones, and police corruption.

Chiefly set in Mandaluyong, the series, penned by “Ma’Rosa” screenwriter Troy Espiritu, “Amo” is also shot in cinéma vérité fashion, turning the viewer into an intimate observer. You forget the camera and find yourself in the slum, in the streets, and in the company of dirty cops and pushers.

Some shots, however, feel rushed, exposing lack of crowd control, with the camera catching pairs of eyes looking directly at it, or random folks stifling that self-conscious snicker of being caught on camera. It jars the senses, these crude details that snap you back to awareness that this is all scripted. A low-budgeted scripted series.

Although Joseph’s life as a shabu peddler is interesting, we never get attached to him, as we barely know him except he’s a smooth-talker with zero morals. In fact, none of the main players manage to affect you, as they are merely used as narrative tools to portray the black-market system of circulating drugs and how corrupt cops do their dirty work.

Derek Ramsay as a cop.
Derek Ramsay as a cop.

Also, the series is more stylized than Mendoza’s usual mumblecore style of filmmaking, inserting a group of rappers in the streets, their hip-hop music a social commentary. This is very corny, with the music somehow diluting the sense of danger and tension in the drama, relegating some scenes into a farce.

Overall, “Amo” is engaging enough to binge-watch. This is no propaganda, but a stark illustration of the country’s current reality and an exposé of the process of the drug trade during President Duterte’s War on Drugs, from the slums to high-end bars, to seedy police quarters.

Mendoza simply reenacts the truth through his impassioned lens, giving us a closer look into the system. And in all this corruption, greed and immorality, the series asks, who is the amo (master)?

3 out of 5 stars
Now streaming on Netlifx (premiered April 9, 2018)

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