It’s easy to see the appeal of Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila, which was regarded by Sundance Film Festival earlier this year with an Audience Award for Best World Dramatic Cinema. It’s a tough, often gruelling urban social-realist drama that soon transforms into a very well-judged crime thriller that packs a satisfying sucker-punch right after its closing shot. I suppose almost anything captured in the Far East with a shoestring budget, featuring a city seeded with inescapable crime and inherent corruption, gets an instant pass in festival circuits these days, especially Sundance. They love this sort of thing. But what really sets Metro Manila apart from many other dog-eat-dog drama is its intelligence in its storytelling and its refusal to be plainly mediocre. Sure, beneath its arthouse stylings, handheld verité cinematography coupled with a loose, guerilla docu-aesthetic, there’s a populist narrative engendered to maintain some crowd-pleasing storytelling beats – a family of four forsake their pastoral yet poor Banaue province to move into the promising Filipino capital only to find even more abject poverty and systemic demoralisation – but its a story told with utter sincerity and genuine socio-political concern.
It goes without saying that Ellis’s film has very little to say about the destinies of his economically thwarted characters. In traditional cinema, any country mouse who migrates into the city gets sucked into the maelstrom of capital sin and corrupted morals, so by plunging the goody two-shoes patriarch Oscar (Jake Macapagal in a dignified yet slightly dull performance) into the criminal underworld and the matriarch into local prostitution make for a well-worn and clichéd trajectory. Believe me, I grew up in the Philippines, and Filipino cinema is ridden with narratives about migrant pilgrims devolving into the sweltering heat of Manila crime culture. Somebody always end up pushing drugs or prostituting themselves not only due to abhorrently low job opportunities, but also due to low-grade, stereotypical quality of writing. The wife Mai, uneducated and worse, naïve, instantly signed into go-go dancing before checking out the local retail or supermarkets whether jobs are available. When we’re met with wordless sequence juxtaposing Oscar’s alcohol-fuelled brotherhood bonding with colleagues and Mai’s night-time grinding employment supposedly to draw sympathy and pathos, our compassion for the characters feel a little unearned. Just because this type of tale demands tropes doesn’t mean its convincing. Which makes for a weak first-half, with the film bluntly suggesting this picture as a life in the Filipino slums through Western perspective.
Such a relief then that Ellis steers the story away from misery porn and introduces a rather cleverly orchestrated heist movie steeped in this destitute milieu which is both unexpected and engrossing. As soon as Oscar is recruited as a security guard for an armoured truck roving the city, and introducing a morally ambiguous character Ong (a fine-tuned John Arcilla), we’re held in thrall. Ellis clearly has talents to burn, with Metro Manila evolving into a cutthroat morality play of the desperate and harrowing sacrifices we make to save our loved ones. The story starts recalling certain flashbacks that give resonance and weight to the proceedings, allowing the film to fully lodge a beating heart at its core. When the city life finally overwhelms this farmer and his wife, the morally righteous one sees his chance to make an economically viable life for this family in return for his steadfast principles. And that makes it very relatably, movingly human.[separator type=”space”] DIRECTOR: Sean Ellis | CAST: Jake Macapagal, Althea Vega, John Arcilla | SCREENPLAY: Sean Ellis, Frank E. Flowers | DISTRIBUTOR: Independent Film Company | RUNNING-TIME: 115mins | GENRE: Drama/Crime| COUNTRY: UK/Philippines