The Movie Waffler New Release Review - Metro Manila | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - Metro Manila

A young family struggles to survive in the slums of Manila.

Directed by: Sean Ellis
Starring: Jake Macapagal, Althea Vega, John Arcilla, Ana Abad-Santos

After being screwed over by the buyers of his small farm's rice supply, Oscar Ramirez (Macapagal) uproots his wife, Mai (Vega), and two young children, for a new life in the bustling Philippines' capital, Manila. Once there they find themselves again duped, immediately becoming the victims of a fake accommodation scam that leaves them penniless and homeless. The Ramirez's move into a ramshackle abandoned hut in one of the city's overcrowded slums. Mai is the first to find work, in a lap-dancing club that's little more than a brothel. Desperate to provide for his family, Oscar takes one the city's most dangerous jobs, driving an armored car for a security company.
In my recent review of the impressive 'Mister John', I discussed the recent trend that has seen European film-makers relocate themselves to the East in order to get movies made cheaply and on their own terms. British director Sean Ellis ('The Broken', 'Cashback') is the latest to join this talent drain and the result is 'Metro Manila', by far the best product of this ex-pat movement.
It's a film that could be set in any big city but I suspect that had it been made in London, for example, it would be a very different film, likely filled with a cast of bad actors with dodgy "mockney" accents. Relocating to a part of the world rarely seen on film removes a lot of baggage and allows Ellis a fresh start in a genre, the urban crime movie, that has been decimated by years of untalented Tarantino wannabes.
The great gritty crime dramas of the seventies ('The French Connection', 'Busting', 'Straight Time') were based around characters who managed to be both tangible and bigger than life. The central characters here, Oscar and his professional mentor Ong (Arcilla), are entirely captivating. If this movie didn't take a brilliant twist into the crime genre, simply watching these two men hang out on the streets of Manila would still make for a great movie. Macapagal gives one of the best lead performances of the year; he's a brilliantly natural actor and I defy anyone not to warm to his portrayal of a man whose situation seems dire yet keeps on smiling. Arcilla is an incredibly charismatic performer, perfectly cast as someone who keeps you guessing as to just how trustworthy he is. The dynamic between the two recalls the great buddy movies of the past. There's a simple scene where the two men stop off for a chicken lunch that provides an incredible and unexpectedly heart-warming moment. But Ellis never lets you get too cosy; as the narrator of Edgar G Ulmer's noir classic 'Detour' says, this is a film where "fate can put the finger on you for no good reason at all".
Western cinema seems intent on ignoring the current global economic crisis but Ellis' film is a Munchian roar of working class discontent. While the likes of 'Slumdog Millionaire' and 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' glamorize squalor in order for white middle-class audiences to sleep comfortably afterwards, 'Metro Manila' has no evidence of a distilled western gaze. There's nothing cute or glamorous about the situation the characters find themselves in here and we're always aware of the role money plays in this story.
On a technical level, this film is a triumph. Ellis edits and shoots his set-pieces to create a nerve-wracking level of tension and the street level photography really gives you a sense of place. I walk through noisy city streets everyday, but it was only after leaving the screening of 'Metro Manila', with its wonderful cacophony of urban white noise, that I realized just how noisy my own city is.
Fox has bought up the rights to remake 'Metro Manila', but take my advice and don't wait for its inevitably more Westernized impostor. Like the chicken wrap that features so heavily in the film, this tale should be consumed while it's fresh.

Eric Hillis