Wednesday, 17 September 2014

METRO MANILA - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Sundance-winning thriller opens TiffBellLightbox

Loyalty, poverty, corruption, prostitution.
A few flavourful items in any crime thriller.
Metro Manila (2013)
Dir. Sean Ellis
Starring: Jake Macapagal, John Arcilla, Althea Vega

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Metro Manila sucks you into the soul-crushing, borderline neo-realist tale of Oscar and Mai Ramirez (Jake Macapagal, Althea Vega), a poverty-stricken rural couple in the Philippines with two kids and another on the way. They back-breakingly harvest their crop of rice and are paid so little for it that the likelihood of being able to afford seed for the next growing season is nigh impossible. Faced with ruin and starvation, they pack what few belongings they have and move to Manila in search of work and a better life. Though the city teems with hustle and bustle, work is scarce.

Desperate to avoid living on the fetid, filthy mean streets, the family are duped lickety-split into shelling out all their money to an unscrupulous con man for a squalid apartment which, they're summarily tossed out of by the real landlord. They're forced to squat in even more repulsive surroundings, a ramshackle slum on the outskirts of the city.

Oscar takes a labour intensive job and discovers it doesn't pay cash, but merely a single meal for each of the men slaving away. Mai is forced to work in a brothel run by a fiery Dragon Lady mama-san type. It has a grotesque in-house daycare service presided over by a surly old Granny and we eventually discover that some of the little girls are pimped out to pedophiles with the full agreement of their desperate mothers.

Things can't get any bleaker than this.

Thank God for a surprising shift in fortune for the family and an even happier, skilfully rendered shift in genre (which frankly, the film has been subtly rooted in from the start). At the end of his tether, Oscar applies for one of the most dangerous, life-threatening, unenviable jobs in Manila, but damn, it's steady and it pays really well. Douglas Ong (John Arcilla), a senior officer in an armoured security firm takes a liking to the earnest country boy. Oscar seems a perfect candidate; he's served in the armed forces, knows his weaponry, has a strong work ethic, needs the dough and comes across as supremely pliable.

Crime in Manila is so insane that armoured trucks are almost constantly held-up by scumbags hopped up on drugs (and poverty). Very entertainingly, the movie takes us through anything and everything one would want to know and/or experience in this high-tension job. Attempted hijackings, dubious scumbag clients, corruption and double-crosses become the order of the day. The writing by Ellis and Frank E. Flowers is sharp and for the most part, the adrenalin-charged narrative thrust comes on with the force of a Tsunami.

The film's writing sadly falters in its final twenty-or-so minutes and the movie nose-dives into a tried-and-true heist picture with a con that feels a bit too close to comfort to something like The Sting (but, delightfully, with extreme macho violence and not much in the way of feel-good). Sean Ellis's direction throughout is nothing less than exemplary - his eye for the varied locations and topography is first-rate, his compositions and coverage of all the dramatic beats are handled with the skill of a master and moments of suspense and action are delivered with considerable aplomb.

Loyalty, betrayal and sacrifice are the real order of the day though, and as such, it's no surprise the film has picked up numerous accolades including a prize at Sundance and two British Independent Film Awards. While some might idiotically condemn Ellis for representing a British colonial attitude to the proceedings, they'd be full of shit. It's a crime picture, for Christ's sake. The rural districts of the Philippines look anything but bucolic and Manila itself feels as mean as any overpopulated metropolis would be. Most of all, aside from the disappointingly conventional and somewhat lazy turn the story takes at the end (and for many it might feel quite satisfying), the movie crackles with the sort of grim, gritty stuff anyone would want from a crime picture.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ Three-and-a-half Stars

Metro Manila plays theatrically at the TIFF Bell Lightbox via Juice Worldwide. Hopefully it will widen out in the rest of the country and if and when it gets to home video, let's hope it comes equipped with a gorgeous Blu-Ray transfer and what I'm sure would be an incredibly informative commentary track from its director.