Like most Catholic countries, the birth rate in the Philippines is pretty bonkers as the Church encourages mothers to have unprotected sex. They say its Gods will. We know it’s to fill the collection plate from more and more believers. The Popes sweeps in on the Vatican’s private plane and bless the crowd from the Pope mobile and the people carry on bonking. Business is good in South East Asia. All this over population means the masses migrate to the big cities to look for work as western tariffs exclude third world farmers from first world markets. In the Philippines some 37% of the commercial wealth is in Metro Manila, the capital of this exploding country and the star of this engaging foreign language drama.
This film is from the emerging talent of British director Sean Ellis, Manila an unlikely location for the Brighton filmmaker’s second movie. But moviemaking isn’t cheap anymore and its easier for these guys to make bold movies overseas, Gareth Evans another who has been successful that way to make his mark, his atmospheric low budget Sci-Fi treat Monsters set in Central America and costing just £300,000 and his brilliant cop thriller ‘The Raid , set in Indonesia, coming in at just £700,000. I’m all for getting away from predictable Hollywood movies. Metro Manila is certainly fresh and interesting, like having an exotic girlfriend with a surprise or two under the hood.
Young couple Oscar (Jake Macapagal) and Mai Ramirez (Althea Vega) are subsistence farmers in a beautiful area of rural Philippines. But their annual rice crop doesn’t bring them enough money to feed their young daughter Angel (Erin Panlilio) and new baby for the winter and so they decide to head to Manila to find work.
They have nowhere to stay on arrival and their money won’t last long, easy pray for the hustlers as pure intimidating throng grinds them down, soon living in a slum on the edge of a dump, not exactly what they had in mind. Oscar finally gets some traction when he gets a job as security guard; his previous army services the clincher to recruiting sergeant Alfred Santos (JM Rodriguez), who takes an instant liking to the naïve and honest farmer. The company boss, Buddha (Moises Magisa), also likes the kid and Oscar soon trainer up and riding shotgun with Alfred.
Mai is also looking for work, attractive and young and so ends up working as hostess in a ‘titty bar’, where she is expected to get customers to keep buying over-priced drinks by sitting on their laps and offering sexual favors. Boss Dora Ong (Ana Abad-Santos) takes pity on her situation and lets the kids play in the back room. She has no money and so has no choice.
Alfred helps Oscar into a new flat and pays the first week rent, deducting it from Oscar’s first pay packet, the two now partners inside and out of the armored car. Their bond seems strong. But then the favors are expected to be returned and all is not as it seems. When Mia is asked by Madame Ong to let her 10-year-old daughter work in the bar for ‘special customers’ its time for the Ramirez family to get out of a city devouring them.
Although it’s a good hour before anything really happens as we are overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of Manila and the desperate fight to survive in the big city, it does get going, a classic morality tale to come. Some scenes are harrowing whereas others are stolen moments of happiness but once the film becomes the heist movie it all gets rather interesting and entertaining as the guns are cocked, a puzzle laid out and waiting to be solved by the viewer. Yes there is one too many third world people stuck in poverty clichés, like the willingness to have a child every ten minutes, the men being humble and subservient and all the pretty girls forced into the sex trade, but it works all the same.
It’s well acted and the young family’s stoic battle to stay afloat in the city is engaging, a tragedy we are seeing being played out all around the world right now, especially in the Mediterranean. Hope often becomes the only thing that keeps people going. It’s an interesting film on those topics in the way the director effectively moulds many genre ideas together to dissect the migrant struggle. There is a lot more going on here than you expected. But it’s definitely too long at 115 minutes, grim to say the least. When you make a foreign movie, the audience can’t handle more than 90 minutes subtitles, especially in the cinema.
I enjoyed Metro although I nearly bailed on it early on with the honking Tuk Tuk’s giving me a headache and the film heading into predictable territory. But, like I say, once the director has finished laying out the ground rules and the film becomes the mystery action drama it really cranks up a few gears. The ending is slightly patronizing on just how bright subsistence farmers maybe and the Philippines seen in a typically negative light yet again but enough here to embrace if you enjoy foreign film.
There are none on the Blue Ray disc but plenty of language options. You can have a dubbed version but we all know that’s the best way to wreck a good foreign movie. This colorful part of the world looks good in Blue Ray and buts it’s not the type of film that gains much from the Blue Ray format.
The BR version does give you more aspect options for widescreen TVs and one to exploit. In fact its one of those films only on Blue Ray so they can charge an extra fiver.
The Daily Telegraph –‘Metro Manila is so spellbound by its setting that it is a good hour before we discover what kind of film it is going to be. It begins as a swirling drama of survival in the Filipino capital — but then suddenly it slips off down an alleyway, only to emerge a scrupulously engineered,Christopher Nolan-ish crime thriller.
Toronto City –‘As bleak as a Dickens novel, yet twinned with a contemporary heist drama, Metro Manila straddles two worlds in telling a compelling story’
Slant Magazine –‘Sean Ellis doesn't so much understand Filipino society as merely see it as grist for standard genre fare, perhaps hoping that the foreign setting will somehow automatically make the clichés feel fresh’.
The Movierports.com –‘Satisfying as entertainment and remarkably cathartic as drama, this is a masterful achievement that deserves to find the audience that the marketplace seems determined to deny it’.
The Dissolve –‘For all the images of slum life at its most desperate and violent, Sean Ellis' Metro Manila is an exploitation movie masquerading as social drama’.
The Playlist –‘Metro Manila is a horror story in its own unflinching way’.
Now Toronto –‘The painstaking set-up for the heist is both admirable in its detail and off-putting in the slick way it exploits poverty, reducing social drama to a genre gimmick’.