The Netflix-acquired, TV5-produced drama series Amo by internationally recognized director Brillante Mendoza is both notable and controversial for a number of reasons. It is notable for being one of the first two Filipino productions acquired by Netflix and the first Filipino TV series to be released exclusively on the international platform.
And as a series following a high school student as he gets sucked into the rampant drug trade in the Philippines, it is controversial in the midst of President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs that has polarized the country and drawn international condemnation.
Amo (at least, initially) centers on Joseph, the aforementioned high school student, who starts off being a small-time shabu (methamphetamine) runner and sometimes user before getting sucked into the higher stakes and more violent world of kingpins and heavier drugs.
The series then makes an awkward, abrupt turn a couple of episodes in and focuses instead on corrupt cops and an elaborate cover-up.
The most interesting thing about Amo, however, may be that none of the themes or plots in the series are new to Filipino audiences, television or film. Sure, there might be a little more sex, nudity and close up shots of drugs than the usual soap opera.
But corrupt and/or incompetent police officers, corrupt politicians, poverty, drug and crime syndicates, infidelity/cheating husbands, gun battles and stabbings? They’ve become regular tropes of Filipino soaps. How money can buy just about anyone, no matter how big or small? Just a normal episode for a daytime or primetime Filipino teleserye. So normal, that any soap opera without “kidnapan and barilan” (kidnappings and gun battles) would be considered refreshing and different.
Netflix’s keyword for Amo is “gritty.” It is a word that could also describe any of Brillante Mendoza’s Cannes and international film festival-featured indie films. Mendoza’s films have depicted the grittiness that is everyday urban life in the Philippines long before Duterte was even a household name. Amo has all of Mendoza’s trademarks: dark, gritty locations, a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness for its poor protagonists and an unflinching look at the slums of urban Metro Manila. The film festival-going audience around the world seem to enjoy his films. But maybe not as much locally.
Another interesting aspect about Amo though is how it is viewed depending on the audience. It will certainly be interpreted and received one way by a Filipino who might have a personal experience with the culture and society or have years of Filipino television watching under their belts. And it will be received a completely different way by the average international Netflix consumer who might not even be able to locate the Philippines on a map, let alone be aware or experienced with the country in general. This is especially true for anyone who may have only a peripheral understanding of the Philippines based on the current situation.
The most polarizing view though will come from Filipinos depending on their opinion on President Duterte. Even before its premiere, critics called Amo a propaganda piece. (Director Brillante Mendoza is a Duterte supporter.)
But Amo doesn’t glorify Duterte’s drug crusade, nor does it put police on a pedestal or even make you sympathize with the small-time drug runners. If anything, Amo presents the war on drugs as a hopeless situation and almost foolish endeavor. Drugs and corruption are so rampant at all levels that trying to eradicate even 1% of either seems impossible.
There is no gray area for any of these characters. No one wins in this drug war and any drug war is fighting a losing game. You try looking for justification for why characters do the things they do. If anything, young Joseph might have the most reasonable justification for first being a small-time shabu courier. But even then, he makes the worst decisions and negates any sympathy or understanding we might have developed for him. Most everyone else are depicted as being evil (drug lords and their police and politician business partners), intoxicated (the drug addicts and some dealers) or obliviously dumb (the higher ups at the national police who have no idea of the things that are happening, literally, under their noses).
Amo gives an unflinching and almost unfiltered look at the drug war. Whether it’s the consequences of drug use or being a simple drug runner or the disgustingly corrupt police force and the complicit elected officials who profit from drugs and get away with murder, literally; no one is the hero or winner here.
Amo consists of 13 episodes, each about 25 minutes each. As mentioned earlier, the first couple of episodes focus on young Joseph before the final episodes make the abrupt turn to highlight the, unfortunately, very believable and murderous lengths some members of the police force will go to make a couple hundred thousand pesos.
Structurally, the abrupt shift feels awkward and sloppy. As if the series needed to fill a couple more episodes so they tacked on the extra story. Plot-wise, it fits the greater narrative of just how far drugs and corruption (often, hand in hand) have become a cancer on Philippine society. If Amo has one agenda, it’s to basically say “Damn life sucks. And there’s nothing we can do about it.”
The Bigger Picture
Amo was originally ordered as a TV movie before being transitioned into a 13-episode series. TV5 scheduled its television premiere, but then put it back on hold pending some “exciting news.” I thought maybe the show would get a Netflix streaming deal.
I wonder if reason TV5s' #AMO by Brillante Mendoza was delayed is because it'll get an intl broadcast deal or something, like a Netflix?
— DryedMangoez (@dryedmangoez) October 19, 2017
Turned out I was right!
For TV5, this isn’t the first time they have attempted something different from the norm on Philippine TV to try and set it apart from its larger competitors. But it’s definitely not hard to see how Amo probably wouldn’t have clicked for mainstream local audiences either. It’s certainly not a mainstream series. Even if it carried an “SPG” rating, it’s unlikely the series would look anything like this on free TV.
It is certainly a coup for the series and for TV5 to get picked up by Netflix. It will be interesting to see if this will lead to more original content from the Philippines to get international distribution on platforms like Netflix. Television series form the Philippines’ Asian neighbors, especially South Korea, have enjoyed immense success and popularity worldwide.
No local Filipino soap opera or even local drama series is on that level (despite self-proclamations of being “world class”). But a Netflix-boost could certainly help encourage better quality, fresh stories and more risk taking. And Amo shows that it is entirely possible for the Philippines to churn out productions that can be featured alongside other Netflix originals. At least, from a technical production standpoint. There are certainly other engaging Filipino stories to tell other than sex, drugs and being poor.
What’s most refreshing though is being able to watch a Filipino television series in true, full HD and possibly even in 4K.
For all the controversy, Amo is a pretty standard Filipino drama series. It is a slick and contemporary take on familiar, often used-Filipino themes. It is very much a slowburn-type of story with its roughly half-hour episodes helping to keep things from moving too slowly.
There is a lack of satisfaction or even finality in the story (or stories) presented here. Maybe as a set-up for a season two? But that lack of a definitive emotional or practical conclusion also speaks to the reality of the Philippines in 2018. There is no end in sight for either the drug epidemic or the corruption epidemic, sadly.
More can be said for Amo being the first in what can potentially be a long list of Filipino productions that can stand alongside those from more established countries on international platforms like Netflix.
While certainly not immediately Emmy-worthy and the like, Amo is a well-made production and opens the door to similar, high quality productions from the Philippines in the future. It is an easy watch and the shorter episodes make for a quick, solid Netflix binge.