Director: Sean Ellis
Writer: Sean Ellis, Frank E. Flowers
Cast: Jake Macapagal, Althea Vega, John Arcilla, Erin Panlilio, Iasha Aceio, Moises Mag Isa, Angelina Kanapi, JM Rodriguez, Ana Abad Santos, Reuben Uy
Running Time: 114 min.
By Paul Bramhall
The well-worn tale of naïve country folk heading to the big city for brighter prospects is one that’s been used in cinema for almost as long as the medium has been around. It’s particularly prevalent in Asian cinema, from Chen Kuan Tai in Boxer from Shantung, through to Iko Uwais in Merantau, such tropes have provided the perfect framework to craft countless gritty action movies. The Philippines though has taken a more drama-centric approach, dating back to the likes of Lino Brocka’s 1975 masterpiece Manila in the Claws of Light (recently given the 4k treatment thanks to Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project), and now given its most recent update in the form of Metro Manila.
What’s perhaps most interesting about Metro Manila, is that it is in-fact a co-production between the UK and the Philippines. Much like the previously mentioned Indonesian movie Merantau was directed by British filmmaker Gareth Evans, so Metro Manila also has a Brit as the helm in the form of Sean Ellis. The director of such dramas as Cashback and The Broken, Ellis came up with the idea for Metro Manila while he was on a visit to the Philippines, and happened to witness an argument between two guards of an armoured truck. Upon his return to the UK, he put together a 20 page treatment for a story, and shortly after began work on the screenplay itself with U.S. based screenwriter Frank E. Flowers.
The catch for Ellis of course, was that having gotten the idea for the story while he was in Manila, he also wanted to film it there. It was an ambitious task, considering not only is it all but impossible to get international backing for a Tagalog language production, but also that neither Ellis nor Flowers knew the language. Regardless of such challenges though, they ploughed ahead, ultimately overcoming them by writing the script in English, and asking the Filipino actors to translate their own lines. The decision was also made to film on the streets of Manila guerrilla style, and it’s one which arguably benefits the look and feel of Metro Manila more than if it had a big budget behind it, as the street level filming amongst the crowded Manila alleys lends it an almost documentary like feel.
The story focuses on a struggling married couple and their two children. The father, played by Jake Macapagal (Showdown in Manila), was recently laid off from an out-of-business silk factory, and is trying to make ends meet as a rice farmer. However with a poor harvest, almost no money to their name, and a young daughter with a toothache, they make the decision to move to Manila, where he believes it’ll be possible to find work. Once there, they soon find themselves swindled out of the little money they have by the predatory conmen populating the cities densely packed urban sprawl, and end up living destitute in the largest slum area of Tondo (the area that parts of the Korean movie Master were also set in). Things eventually start to look up when Macapagal secures a job as a guard at an armoured truck company, and is taken under the wing of a more experienced guard played by John Arcilla (The Bourne Legacy). However it’s soon revealed that Arcilla is not all that he seems to be.
While on paper Metro Manila may sell itself as a taut crime thriller, in reality it’s far from it, with the eventual heist element of the plot only being revealed a whole 80 minutes in. Instead, Ellis has crafted a superior piece of human drama that reflects both the harsh realities of life, and more significantly how far someone is willing to go to provide for their family. Macapagal, along with his characters wife and daughter, played by Althea Vega and Erin Panlilio respectively, have fantastic chemistry together, and are almost too believable as a family unit that suffer misfortune after misfortune. There’s a heart wrenching sequence mid-way through, which has a scene of Macapagal obliged to join Arcilla and his colleagues for a night of drinking in a local bar, juxtaposed with a scene of Vega miserably working in a go-go bar and being harassed by the foreign clientele. It represents a pivotal moment of reaching rock bottom, and the decisions taken when you have nothing left to lose.
Arcilla’s performance is a standout, and even though not he’s not a part of the family unit of which the plot keeps its focus on, he’s a pivotal character in the events that shape Metro Manila into the movie that it is. There’s an underlying tension to his loud and almost over-friendly bravado with Macapagal that’s difficult to put your finger on, and the more he begins to show his ambitions, the more he begins to come across as a tightly wound coil that Macapagal is directly in the crossfire of. It’s darkly enthralling to watch, as Ellis keeps his cards close to his chest for the longest time, allowing seemingly random and meaningless events to unfold onscreen in a slice-of-life type manner, until the moment comes when everything falls into place, and true intentions are revealed.
However even then, that’s not to say that Arcilla is the villain of the piece. Ellis may have framed his tale in a way that would have audiences assume there is a bad guy behind everything, but once Metro Manila gets under your skin, you realise that it’s not about good guys or bad guys. Rather, it’s about the harshness of a city where many of its residents have to get by on less than $10 a day, and the inevitable follies of human nature once presented with a way to get out of it. There are no epiphanies to be found here, were a character suddenly realises that they could get rich if they were to go down a certain path, but instead we see the fleeting moments of opportunity seized out of desperation more than anything else, and the consequences that follow.
Perhaps the most significant character in Metro Manila though, is the bustling metropolis that is Manila itself. Ellis captures it with an unflinching eye, from the slums of Tondo, with its barren huts nailed together from whatever sheets of plywood can be found, to the contemporary apartments of uptown, with their modern amenities and 24 hour security. The division between the rich and the poor is observed through the eyes of Macapagal and Arcilla, on the road in their armoured truck, and is never inherently commented upon, Ellis seemingly happy to allow the images to simply speak for themselves. Could the story have been transposed to any other city in the world with a similar economy? Probably, but it definitely wouldn’t be the same movie that we have here.
One notable criticism that has been levelled at Metro Manila by some Filipino viewers, is that there are pieces of dialogue that don’t sound natural being spoken in Tagalog. This is most certainly due to the actors themselves translating the English lines into Tagalog, and was an issue that both Macapagal and Arcilla have openly stated was sometimes a challenge. However much like many Mandarin speakers heavily criticised Daniel Wu’s line delivery in One Night in Mongkok, and many picked on Shu Qi’s Cantonese in her early Hong Kong movies, for a non-native speaking audience, this is largely a non-issue. For Metro Manila in particular, the subtitles simply follow the English script, however it is a relevant criticism for those that can watch it in its native language of Tagalog.
As a social drama that gradually develops into a slow burning thriller, there aren’t many other movies out there, at least in Asia, which can be easily compared to Metro Manila. In the local Philippines film industry itself, there’s sadly nothing that comes close. It’s a unique movie, and even allowed for the UK to provide an entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 86th Academy Awards, probably the first and last time such an entry will be possible. While Ellis wisely chooses to not go the route of providing a blatantly happy ending, there is closure in the finale moments of Metro Manila, that allow for hope to subtly shine through. At one point Vega solemnly states to Macapagal, “It was a big mistake to come to Manila.” It’s a difficult line to disagree with, but for those who have yet to see Metro Manila, I guarantee you certainly won’t consider it a mistake to check it out.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8.5/10