Review: Alpha, the Right to Kill (2018)

In recent years, there has been an undeniable explosion of fictionalised depictions of the origins of “drug wars”. An example is Netflix’s successful dramatised rendering of the birth of America’s War on Drugs told from the point of view of DEA agents and the cartels themselves in MedellĂ­n, Colombia in the case of Narcos (2015-2017) and its follow-up prequel, Narcos: Mexico, which was released earlier this year. The talk of any “war on drugs” is one that we’ve been more or less accustomed to for years now.

But now, talks of a drug war have come to hit a little closer to home (especially for myself as a Filipino) as one has been ongoing for the last two and a half years in the Philippines ever since the current president, Rodrigo Duterte, was sworn into office. With his famed “no tolerance” approach and encouragement of vigilantism, what we’ve seen for the last two years is a rallying cry for citizens and police forces alike to take matters into their own hands. This is the underlying context within which Brillante Mendoza’s latest film, Alpha, the Right to Kill (2018) is set. 

Born out of his 12-episode Netflix miniseries Amo (which we'll touch upon more) released this past April as the very first Filipino series on the streaming site, Alpha serves as an extension of the narrative he explored there. The social-realist thriller, as described by Mendoza himself in an interview with the SINdie team from a few months ago, was unintentional as he didn't plan on making it, but he found that "there was still more to say, to tell".

Alpha opens with a shot of uniformed policemen marching in unison, a blatant display of rule and order as they walk up a closed street. Physically militaristic in their precision, this sets up the position that the police undertake in Duterte's war on drugs. Like soldiers amid a battlefield, each possible drug bust (as shown in the film) is not treated as an opportunity to expose what is, of course, a wider web of producers, suppliers, dealers, and users, but as the chance to simply shoot to kill. There are no questions asked, no attempts at gaining more insight, only assumptions made and another statistic to be added to a growing body count. 

Written by Troy Espiritu, the narrative of Alpha insofar as it's a quasi-exposĂ© of the drug war touches upon the inevitable corruption that has ensued. One of the two protagonists, Espino (played by Allen Dizon, reprising his role from Amo), is a corrupt police officer who enlists the assistance of his eponymous “alpha”, or informant, Elijah (played by Elijah Filamor) to make a profit from the drugs obtained from a raid by reselling it on the streets. The juxtaposition of the two characters is an unsurprising attempt at making viewers perceive the drug war from “both sides of the coin” as the saying goes, with both men as fathers simply doing what they must in order to survive. Whether it’s smuggling drugs in his baby’s diaper or affixing a baggie of crack cocaine to a pigeon’s foot, Elijah does what he must. 

Before the aforementioned raid takes place, there’s a stunning sequence of footage presumably captured by a drone. As the shot pans upwards from the slums littered at the base of Manila’s skyline to the towering skyscrapers above them, it's almost as though the slums are the capital’s very foundations. The shot is as appropriate as it is revealing, for we later learn that Alpha is ultimately about the enduring cycle of corruption between the poor and those in power. 

Stylistically, Mendoza is haphazard and raw in his use of documentary-style filmmaking and hand-held camerawork. Despite the realism and intimacy that such techniques aspire to enable, it ultimately falls short. With its action-packed pace and sparse dialogue, the film struggles to give true depth to the characters, especially when compared to his earlier film Ma'Rosa (2016) which touched upon a similar subject matter. Moments of poignancy that should feel poignant feel like afterthoughts instead, such as those of wailing mothers and wives grieving over the deaths of their sons and husbands. Perhaps that is the intention—another day, another death. Have we become so desensitised to the sight of grief and mourning born out of the drug war? Is another body truly just another statistic?

Despite its subject matter and the fact that this is purportedly the reality of the Philippines today, it is interesting to observe the very limited role that Duterte himself plays. As a character in the background, we catch snippets of his voice as they reverberate from a TV screen at the police station, almost relegating an omnipresence to him.

Given the fact that Alpha is a continuation of Amo and as a Filipino, it feels necessary to reflect upon the following points. Political leanings aside, Duterte's war on drugs has been long criticised by human rights advocates in the international community. Naturally, any depiction of its impact on the people who live through it each day is bound to fall under scrutiny as well. 

This is where we return to AmoAs I wrote this review, I was surprised (or perhaps not entirely so) to find that the series was heavily criticised in the Philippines as a "glorification" of the war on drugs and as pro-drug war propaganda, to the point that the mother of a falsely accused marijuana dealer began a petition to have it removed on Netflix. Labelled as a pro-Duterte figure and having directed the two State of the Nation addresses for the president, Mendoza himself said in an interview with AFP that the drug war "is necessary for the Philippines—not only for the Philippines but also other countries afflicted with the drug problem".

This, of course, makes Alpha similarly problematic for the same reasons and I understand that now. Social realism aside, I can't say the film does the reality of the drug war and its ability to impact the lives of Filipinos much justice—the film is about drugs and the world of the drug war but not so much about the people trapped within it. 

When Alpha opened at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival as part of the festival's  late night Midnight Mayhem section, Mendoza was there to introduce it. As he stood in front of a sleepy audience, he explained that the film had yet to premiere in the Philippines. Knowing what I know now, I'm curious to see what the reactions will be like. 

Written by Melissa Noelle Esguerra

Melissa Noelle Esguerra is a multifaceted writer who likes to explore all things pertaining to art, film, culture, and literature. She obtained her BA (Hons) in English Language & Literature with a minor in Linguistics from New York University. After having spent the last four years in New York City, she now resides in Singapore. 
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