ALPHA: THE RIGHT TO KILL

★★★

A GRITTY, VIVIDLY REALISTIC GLIMPSE AT PHILIPPINE'S "WAR ON DRUGS"

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Charlie David Page
5th June 2019

In case you're not up with your Philippines politics, here's a quick summary: the country's president, Rodrigo Duterte, was voted in for his no-nonsense approach to tackling the country's rampant drug problem. However, after almost three years in power, his heavy-handed tactic has been to permit the killing of both drug dealers and users by police - a "war on drugs" that has taken anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000 lives. What was originally perceived by Filipinos as decisive action for a long-stagnant problem soon turned to fear, as people caught consuming alcohol or smoking cigarettes in public also suffered the same fate. Slammed by foreign governments and international human rights agencies, Duterte's placement is now more of a dictatorship than presidency. His latest appearance in international headlines, just days ago, was his claim that he "cured" himself from being gay - a bold claim in a country with both a prominent Christian following and LGBT population.

Having experienced the country myself just 12 months ago, I can attest that this is a real, serious issue in Philippines. Police are plentiful throughout Manila, both seen in the streets and undercover trying to entrap potential buyers. Automatic weapon-armed security adorn every building, shopping centre and 7-Eleven store, sometimes outnumbering the customers. While sentiment has moved away from Duterte, mid-term election results still showed a swing towards his allies - terrifying considering Duterte still has another three of his six-year term as president ahead of him, and even without the possibility of re-election may still be the puppet-master behind the country's new leader.

'ALPHA, THE RIGHT TO KILL' TRAILER

No, SWITCH hasn't started covering political affairs, but it's all important information for the new Filipino film 'Alpha: The Right to Kill'. Although a dramatisation, it covers closely the events that have escalated in the country in the past three years. We follow Sergeant Moises Espino (Allen Dizon, a famous actor locally, particularly known for his soft-porn roles in his early career), an officer assigned to cracking down on drugs in Manila. Working on a sting with other departments, he's primarily there to coordinate the movements of the alpha Elijah (Elijah Filamor), who purchases the drugs as evidence before the SWAT team moves in, killing 10 people. Once the operation goes down, we learn that Espino and Elijah are dirty, with Elijah grabbing a backpack full of drugs to sell in the confusion of the bust. However, when the Chief of Police (Apollo Abraham) realises this vital piece of evidence has gone missing, he launches a manhunt to track down the culprit. What lengths will Espino go to to ensure he's not found out?

This is a brutal and gritty drama looking at two major issues in Philippines - drugs and police corruption. There's also comments on the extremes of social class in the country - Espino is towards the top of the food chain, with a nice house for his wife and children to live in, while Elijah lives in the slums, sleeping in a place that's more a trash heap than a home. Espino also gets the lion's share of profits from the sale of drugs - around 100,000 Philippine pesos (or around AU$2,800) - while Elijah receives just a few thousand pesos, barely enough to buy nappies and baby formula for his newborn.

This is a brutal and gritty drama looking at two major issues in Philippines - drugs and police corruption.

The film is directed by Brillante Mendoza ('Ma' Rosa', 'Lola', 'Kinatay', 'The Womb'), an internationally-renowned Filipino director whose films are typically flops in his home country, lacking the over-the-top comedy or romance most popular in films produced locally. With 51 directorial award wins and past films screened at Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Munich, San Sebastián and Sydney Film Festivals, he's a filmmaker with an impressive track record, and not afraid to feature heavy-hitting subject matter. Given his country's leadership, Mendoza bravely presents the circumstances with a vivid realism, handheld cinematography in the fold, with grainy nighttime footage peeking at what happens on the streets under the cover of darkness.

Brillante Mendoza's objective is to shine a light on the problem currently gripping his country - a leader out of control, willing to stop at nothing to achieve his mission. By its conclusion, it's clear he also doesn't believe this is the way forward, and that thousands of deaths won't change the situation. While there are some problems with the script's pacing and assumed knowledge, 'Alpha: The Right to Kill' is using its craft to send a very specific message - making this one of the most important films you could currently take in.

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