Metro Manila

Last Updated: November 17, 2013By Tags: , , ,

A Welshman directed a foreign-language cop drama (see our REVIEW of Gareth Evans’s “The Raid: Redemption”) in Jakarta, so why couldn’t a Brit direct one in The Philippines? “Metro Manila,” half-thriller, half-drama, delivers an elegant and astute finish that will have you cheering and clapping. But the ninety minutes that precede this are so bogged down with politically-correct clichés and mournful impressionism that its storytelling potential is eviscerated. This new film by Sean Ellis is a disappointment–so much so in fact that I wonder if Ellis shouldn’t go back to making music videos (as it were, none of his previous films like “Cashback,” or “The Broken” have been cause for excitement, either).

I am aware of the nerve-wrecking sacrifices that go into making a film, most of which often remain untold and unseen. Filmmakers have my sympathy, obviously. But “Metro Manila,” in which an impoverished family of peasants who travel to the Filippino capital looking for work only to run into disaster, is stifling and uninspired. And almost surprisingly so: Manila, where survival is de facto linked to your selling either your body or your soul, should be an El Dorado for people in search of a story. But apparently it’s more like the coral reef that foreigners jam their boats into. And it doesn’t help the film either that the performance of its lead actor Jake Macapagal, in the role of Oscar, is muted to the point of underwhelming.

When asked about the genesis of the project, Ellis commented that while vacationing in the Philippines he witnessed two armored truck drivers getting into an argument. Ellis, apparently touched by the moment, would later write a screenplay around this event. The inspiration to write can come from the most insignificant happenstance; something that touches us will trigger creativity. But Mr. Ellis’s imagination  seemed to have packed its bag and taken a vacation of its own, losing a story somewhere during the flight.

“Metro Manila” is told in two parts: the impressionist phase, when rice farmers Oscar and his wife, after determining that they won’t have enough money for next year’s seedlings, up and move to Manila with their two children; and the next phase, during which Oscar gets work as an armored truck officer and his wife (Althea Vega) finds a job as an exotic dancer. This second part of the film is held together by a fraying yarn of retribution, greaseball padrones, caseloads of cash and bulgy-eyed foreigners misbehaving in titty bars.

After arriving in Manila the couple is led to their new apartment by a stranger who facilitates the financial transaction with some alleged landlord. It turns out to be a hoax and before you can say gusto mo ba ditto* they’re out of cash and get kicked out into the street by the city marshalls.

For a while things turn dangerous and weapons are hoisted on screen and sordid images of call girls and gang members are paraded about. It’s all rather boring and tensionless, until the final ten minutes, which provide a big payoff and score points for inventiveness.

“Metro” reminded me of “Only God Forgives,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s own misguided attempt at turning the locale of a former vacation into feature film (our absurd inclination for exoticism claims another victim).

If at times the tropes of the drama/thriller are present in it, “Metro Manila,” which includes six times more shots than ideas, is a typical example of images that, turning extreme misery into politically-correct tragedies, keep us from seeing things for what they really are.

No U.S. distribution as of this writing.

* “Do you like it here?” in Tagalog

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