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Plot: hospital is haunted by apparitions and suspect slayings.

Ghosts are deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and folklore. They were part of oral tradition before writing developed during the Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1046 BCE). From there out they came one of the earliest stories in ancient Chinese literature and they are very much part of everyday life in China to this day. The Chinese pantheon of ghosts and apparitions is especially interesting as it mixes ancient concepts of the cycle of life, death and rebirth with philosophical traditions like Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. In Chinese folklore there a multitude of different ghosts; some benevolent, some malevolent and the majority of them happen to be female. Roughly speaking there are three categories of female ghosts: the vengeful, the orphaned, and the hungry. The vengeful ghost seek retribution against those that wronged her in life, the orphaned ghost has no living descendants to offer libations in her name and thus she is forced to wander the mortal realm, while the hungry ghost is typically condemned for transgressions or wrongdoings engaged in during life. Just as in folklore and culture ghosts have been part of the Chinese cinematic landscape since the dawn of filmmaking. Asia has a long history in having some of the best ghost movies.

Whether it are classical examples like The Enchanted Shadow (1960), and The Ghost Of the Mirror (1974), post-modern fantasy-infused efforts like A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Green Snake (1993), or more contemporary outings as Ringu (1998), Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), Dark Water (2002), and The Eye (2002) Asia has a long history with ghost horror and has contributed many a classic to the subgenre. While hardly the worst of its kind Lift to Hell (電梯驚魂) occasionally manages to push the right buttons but isn’t exactly what you’d call riveting. It was based on the internet novel 18 Floors Underground (地下18層) by Bu Zhoushan Sanren and while we can’t vouch for how faithful it’s to the source material, it’s able to scrounge up an atmospheric scene here and there. Most of the time however Lift to Hell is, sadly, emblemic of Mainland China ghost horror at large in so many ways. It remains ever popular with young filmmakers due to how easy they are to make (consider them the Sino equivalent of found footage, slashers, or paranormal horrors) in general and the subgenre shows no signs of… well, giving up the ghost, you could say. Hong Kong, Thailand, and Indonesia do this type horror far better, for all the obvious and not so obvious reasons.

In the old Peninsula Hospital in northern China head nurse Ma (Yang Qing) dies under mysterious circumstances one night after failing to take her medication. In her dying moments she remembers the 18th floor incident and the walls adorned with the words “today, it’s your turn!” written in blood. That same night Dr. Lin Fei (Blue Lan Cheng-Lung), son of hospital dean Dr. Lin Siyuan (Su De), sees what he believes to be a female ghost through the telescope from his flat in the opposite building when watching his girlfriend nurse Bai Jie (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na). Lin Fei is not liked by everybody, the nurses like him well enough, but for senior heart surgeon Dr. Zhang Tiankai (Robert Lin) his youthful idealism are a grave annoyance. One day Tiankai is accused by a journalist of the Medical Daily of plagiarising a German medical dissertation for one of his recent publications. He assumes that since they had their professional differences that Lin Fei must be behind it. When the elderly doctor too receives a “today, it’s your turn!” note in his email, he commits suicide by jumping out of the window.

All of this prompts the hospital’s geriatric custodian Hu Wei (Cai Hong-Xiang) to try and exorcise the ghost. When Lin Fei tries to consult the custodian he finds him not only unreponsive but he too commits suicide driven mad by terror. The spate of mysterious deaths stoke the rumors of the hospital being haunted among nurses and staff. The mysterious deaths compel Lin Fei to dig deep into the case history of the hospital. Since Lin Fei was the last to see old man Hu alive the good doctor is, understandably, among the suspects. This forces Bai Jie to end their relationship to safeguard her own reputation and future employment. As Lin Fei plunges deeper into his investigation Bai Jei starts dating Lin Fei’s senior Dr. Ouyang Ke (Tse Kwan-Ho). As Lin Fei follows the clues he discovers a medical malpractice case the hospital went to extremes to cover up. Will he live long enough to exonerate himself off any alleged wrongdoing, uncover the sordid truth behind Dr. Ouyang Ke, the mysterious death of Ouyang’s mother Dr. Ye Zi (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na) on the 18th floor, and the alleged ghost that now seems to haunt everybody involved with the case?

Since this was a production from the Film Bureau it guarantees two things: first, there will be nothing that could be in any way construed as offensive to Chinese cultural sensibilities and/or to the state-sanctioned Chinese national identity. Second, the Film Bureau is in the habit of contracting a lot of models in their productions. In this case the prerequisite model is Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜). Chau, the once-and-future Sino queen of cleavage, didn’t become a superstar overnight. She was a veritable internet phenomenom in and around 2009. In that capacity she was invited to the Knowledge Unlimited seminar at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology that year where she was unable to answer a number of philosophical and existential questions. A year later veteran actor Anthony Wong singled her out for criticism and ridicule as a pseudo-model (models without formal training and who don’t meet the criteria for catwalk models, what the Chinese refer to as lang mo) calling them “bimbos”. Second, after slaving away in thankless decorative and flower vase roles of no real weight or importance in romances, ghost horrors, and comedies for almost a decade Beach Spike (2011) was sweet Chrissie’s first genuine hit and signaled that her career was on the uptick. 2013 was a busy year for her. In just twelve months Chau was in a whopping 11 (!!) movies including, but not limited to, Kick Ass Girls (2013), Cold Pupil (2013), and The Extreme Fox (2013). Of course, since sweet Chrissie cuts a dashing 32D figure you can bet that she’ll be changing clothes and taking a shower. This being Mainland China everything always stays within the realms of respectability.

Even in such a target-rich environment as the Mainland China ghost horror scene Lift to Hell is an abomination. Mired with a mess of a screenplay as well as cinematography and special effects that range from decent to amateuristic Lift to Hell is hardly a vital contribution to the subgenre. How many completely telegraphed (not to mention, obvious) jump-scares and creepy shots of darkened interiors can you throw at the viewer before boredom inevitably sets in? This is about as close to furniture - or interior design porn as you’re likely to get. There are endless meandering semi-creepy digital effects shots of elevator that you’d swear this is a Sino take on The Lift (1983) (which it isn’t, although it tries very hard to). How many shots of sweet Chrissie looking misty-eyed or constipated does the world really need? Cold Pupil (2013) had the good grace to make Chau an active participant in the plot. In what little Lift to Hell distinguishes itself from any other Mainland China ghost horror is that sweet Chrissie is given the opportunity to play multiple roles. Not that that in itself in any way an innovation, it’s an age-old continental European gothic horror convention dating back at least to the mid-sixties. The only really interesting thing that the screenplay has on offer is the explanation for its ghost. Not that that is much of a compliment as this is what Mainland China ghost horror is rightly infamous for. The law forbids it. There are no, and will not be any, ghosts, ever, in a Mainland China ghost horror. There are some mild allusions to the Diyu (地獄, or "earth prison”) of Chinese folk religion (that blends concepts of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism) but nothing is ever done with it.

Once every blue moon Lift to Hell generates a pulse and when it does so it’s able to conjure up a decent spooky image or good sound design. However rare said occurances might be it’s faint praise for a production abiding by pretty much all of the tried-and-true conventions. Lift to Hell is so rife with clichés and contrivances that it’s more fun to predict what’s going to happen next than it’s interested in scaring the viewer. On the whole it’s closer to We Are Not Alone (2016) in that it’s a good enough little genre exercise but nothing particularly compelling or even all that well written. It’s not nearly as subtextually rich as Verónica (2017) or P (2005). Chrissie Chau Sau-Na is easy enough on the eyes but at this point Blue Lan Cheng-Lung was a bigger star than she was. This means Chau’s relegated to the default position of love interest and Lift to Hell gives her practically nothing to work with. Not that sweet Chrissie is able to lift elevate Lift to Hell beyond the trite and mediocre. Don’t go in expecting a contemplative, introspective slowburn as Nobuo Nakagawa's Jigoku: The Sinners of Hell (地獄) (1960) neither hope for a grotesque bloodfeast with Mario Bava-esque lightning and set design in the way of Teruo Ishii's Jigoku: Japanese Hell (地獄) (1999). China, or Hong Kong, has spawned far better crafted ghost movies than Lift to Hell. This is not it.

Plot: PDEA officers fight to survive a night-time bust in the slums.

It’s impossible to argue with nearly 40 years of cinematic tradition. BuyBust is Filipino through and through. Described on the regular as, “Die Hard in the slums” this adrenaline-pumping two-hour actionfest might very well be as incendiary Kinji Fukasaku’s legendary swansong Battle Royale (2000). BuyBust packs more than enough punch, a lot of bang, and some very bloody kills. With an amiable lead, a likeable supporting cast, and impressively brutal action direction and choreography this might very well be the Filipino answer to The Raid (2011). Whatever the case, BuyBust is a modern classic, ensuring that the spirit of Cirio H. Santiago lives on.

The star here is Anne Curtis who debuted in TGIS (1995), apparently a veritable phenomenon on Filipino television. Since then she has remained a pillar of Filipino television as well as dramas and romances of every stripe. One such dramas was No Other Woman (2011) where she starred alongside Cristine Reyes. It’s interesting that both would eventually get their own no-holds-barred action epic. Much blood has been shed in these pages how we loved Reyes as the sexy retired assassin in Maria (2019). In the interest of honesty Curtis isn’t too shabby of an actress – or at least she’s able to acquit herself admirably in what is a pretty physical but unthankful role. Reyes had the benefit of a more developed character in Maria (2019) and Veronica Ngo had some rather excellent action choreography in Furie (2019). That’s not even mentioning Fernanda Urrejola in Bring Me the Head of the Machine Gun Woman (2012). Not only had she to juggle wafer-thin writing with a fantasy-fuel fetish constume, but even before her recurring role in Narcos: México (2018-2020) it was clear she was destined for international superstardom. Reyes and Curtis have yet to break through globally.

If Maria (2019) was about well-financed criminal empires with far-reaching political connections in the wealthier neighborhoods of Manila then BuyBust is about drug cartels driving the destitute and the poor into crime, about the slums and the political systems that create them, the widespread corruption of the police force and their associated government officials. Maria (2019) was all about shiny cars, beautiful women, and palatial villas. BuyBust offers a dissenting voice towards the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, the inherent futility of the Philippine Drug War and the promises of the restoration of social order through violence and superior firepower. BuyBust is about the lower classes, the forgotten, the ignored. More than anything it’s a polemic against poverty, of disenfranchisement, and a lack of upward social mobility. Maria (2019) looked and sounded impeccable, in BuyBust on the other hand you can smell the mud, the stale beer, the smog – the abject poverty in the slums is palatable, and so is the destitution of the people living there. BuyBust absolutely pulls no punches whatsoever and the picture it paints of the Philippines is not a pretty one, indeed.

The Philippine Drug War rages on. Detectives Rudy Dela Cruz (Lao Rodriguez) and Alvarez (Nonie Buencamino) have leaned on small-time drug dealer Teban (Alex Calleja) during interrogation convincing him that giving up the present whereabouts of elusive drug kingpin Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde) is in his own best interest. Meanwhile disgraced police officer Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis) has survived bootcamp and is selected by aspirant team leader Bernie Lacson (Victor Neri) to join his elite PDEA anti-narcotics squad. After an operation to lure Biggie Chen out of hiding at Rajah Sulayman in Rizal Park fails to produce the desired results Teban ensures them that he can be found at the barangay Gracia ni Maria, supposedly drug-free by Dela Cruz’ own admission, in Tondo, Manila. The squad splits into a Alpha and Bravo teams led by Lacson and Rico Yatco (Brandon Vera), respectively. As Teban meets with Chongki (Levi Ignacio) to get an audience with Biggie Chen Manigan deduces that the entire thing is a set-up but her words fall on deaf ears. When their indecisiveness leads to the senseless killing of village elder Elmer (Eddie Ngo) their inaction provokes the community, always in the crossfire of the drug war, not just into disobedience but into a veritable violent civil uprising. Now in the midst of an all-out war with both the cartel members from Biggie Chen as well as Gracia ni Maria’s civilian militias the only question is: will Manigan survive the night long enough to find the corrupted one in her ranks?

For the Die Hard (1988) comparison to work it BuyBust takes far, far, far too long to let Nina Manigan face off alone against hordes of enemies. Likewise, for the Battle Royale (2000) comparison to hold up none of the other PDEA officers (beyond Manigan and Rico Yatco, obviously) are defined and explored as characters enough. Instead of seperating them early on and having each “team” fight toward a common destination or objective, BuyBust is content to throw them into the meatgrinder and be done with it. It’s difficult to care about anybody when everybody looks, acts, and sounds the same. Had BuyBust focused on the Die Hard (1988) angle and left Manigan as the sole survivor of the raid about an hour in, then it could spent the next hour having her fighting the cartel. Apparently this what Matti was going for because towards the third act Manigan is finally taking on armed goons in her soaked dirt-covered, bloodstained tanktop. What an incredible opportunity was missed here. Chocolate (2008), Maria (2019), and Furie (2019) worked so well because we knew exactly who Zen, Maria, and Hai Phượng were, what drove them, and what the stakes were. In BuyBust it’s hard to care about anybody except Manigan and Ratco. Mostly because Manigan and Ratco are actual characters, and not cyphers or rough abstracts like the remainder of the PDEA team. For Manigan to have but 20 minutes of solo action borders on criminal. When, and if, there’s a sequel, it better focus on agent Nina Manigan, exclusively.

What really somewhat dampens BuyBust is its reliance on all the tricks of modern, realist filmmaking. That is to say, frequently action scenes are not only marred, but actively nigh on impossible to follow, thanks to the rapid-fire editing, needlessly shaky camerawork (it doesn’t make it realistic, it makes it hard to follow), and terrible framing. What good is an action scene when you can’t see where everybody is, and how persons and objects relate to each other in space? Other times the camerawork is smooth and fluent almost making BuyBust look a video game playthrough. This is especially the case when the PDEA officers are scaling roofs and/or jumping from one wave of goons into the next. Fights break out but since we’re not familiar with the surroudings it’s hard to care. Literally dozens upon dozens of armed assailants are slaughtered over the course of two hours, but none feel as satisfying and earned as John McClane killing Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988) or Shuya finally gunning down Kitano in Battle Royale (2000). In both instances every kill feels earned and represents a milestone. Here the great majority feel just like flesh for the grinder, one that must constantly be fed. Neither are there any boss level fights or heavies that Manigan must defeat. Perhaps it could be sensory overload with so much happening at the same time. More likely it was just a case of wanting to do everything and cut nothing. Overkill, quite literally, in fact.

Anne Curtis is cast against type for once, and like Cristine Reyes and Fernanda Urrejola the beautiful girl makes a lean, mean killing machine. However she wouldn’t be nearly be as much of a blunt force weapon if it weren’t for the fluent action direction and stomping fight choreography from and by Sonny Sison. BuyBust was filmed in 56 days and prior to principal photography Curtis underwent rigorous training in knife fighting, close corner combat, and was instructed in the ways of Pekiti-Tirsia Kali at the Scout Ranger Training School. As a natural result of this, she elected to do most of her own stunts. BuyBust can pride itself on employing some 309 stuntmen and 1,278 extras during production. The special effects work by Guy and Pong Naelgas is deliciously old school and appear to be largely practical-based, which is always a plus. Obviously there are digital enhancements and post-production effects but they never are intrusive or distracting. Director of photography Neil Bion for the most part is able to hide the budgetary limitations and rarely does a shot look amateuristic or cheap. The music from Malek Lopez and Erwin Romulo is an exciting mix of indigenous Filipino music, pounding club music, and smoked out bluesy rock and metal.

Since BuyBust Matti has directed the supernatural horror Kuwaresma (2019) (released internationally as The Entity) and the comedy A Girl and A Guy (2021) and so far no BuyBust sequel seems imminent as of this writing. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. In times wherein any title must potentially launch a franchise BuyBust so far hasn’t been diluted by any sequel or the expectations of a potential franchise. For one thing it would be great to have Cristine Reyes, Anne Curtis, and Fernanda Urrejola heading up their own action blockbuster. Is there anything more Filipino than the female action hero? It's probably one of the country’s most enduring cinematic traditions alongside topless kickboxing – and completely insane martial arts movies. We’d love nothing more than for Anne Curtis than to take on these kinds of roles on a semi-regular basis and when the screenplay fits her. Maria (2019) and Furie (2019) were slick and brutally efficient in their minimalism BuyBust on the other hand goes big. A production like this is the perfect antidote against Hollywood tentpole action features. BuyBust is brooding, grim, and exciting – what more do you want?