Starring: Jake Macapagal, Althea Vega, John Arcilla
Genre: Drama/ Thriller/ World Cinema
Struggling to survive from what they earn from the farmland, Oscar Ramirez (Macapagal) and his family travel to the metropolis of Manila to seek work and a better life. Unfortunately their naivety is taken advantage of by locals and they are forced to live in the extreme poverty of one of the city’s slums. Oscar’s wife Mai (Vega) is forced to get a degrading job in a ‘bar’ and Oscar manages to get a job in the well paid, but extremely dangerous area of driving armoured money carrying trucks around the city. There more experienced driver Ong (Arcilla) takes Oscar under his wing and the two get on very well, and things finally seem to be looking up for Oscar and his family. However once ulterior motives and the cruel reality of life are revealed, Oscar faces the biggest challenge and darkest moment of his life yet.
With The Raid Gareth Evans proved that Brit directors abroad can be a success when making a film about overseas cultures and now Englishman Sean Ellis is having go at making a film set in The Philippines about the culture of life in that country’s capital city: Manila. It is a great move and is by far Ellis’ best film yet in what is a gripping and genuinely engaging story from start to finish that is told with total integrity.
In what is essentially a film of two halves, the first half of Metro Manila is pure character development. This of course is a risk, but through both striking visuals and superb naturalistic dialogue and acting Ellis produces an immersive world that is incredibly engaging. As viewers we discover both the grandeur and the harsh realities of this vast city with the protagonists. We are at times as naive as them, making their struggle and ultimately universal needs all the more engaging and producing characters that we truly care about. Macapagal and Vega give understated but immensely powerful performances capturing perfectly through their facial expressions and body language the mixture of emotions they feel and experience with subtlety. No matter what obstacles they face they maintain their integrity and it is their love for each other and their family that drives them. Through aerial shots of the city that often show religious undertones, Ellis creates a truly immersive atmosphere of this immense city that we the viewer find as overwhelming and fascinating as the protagonists.
The second half of Metro Manila is pure plot, but having invested half the film in getting to know these rich characters the consequences of the narrative prove to be both equally compelling and devastating viewing. As the experienced driver Ong, John Arcilla is a magnetic screen presence and gives a great performance as the man who takes Oscar under his wing. Oscar is blown away by all the things Ong does for him, such as providing him with an actual apartment that has running water, however, and I do not want to give too much away, Ong has slightly ulterior motives. What then unfolds is an utterly gripping turn of events as Oscar finds himself out of his depth and forced to take extremely desperate measures. Having got to know this character so much, it is impossible not to be completely gripped by what happens to Oscar and with Ellis’ superb direction Metro Manila contains one of the most unforgettable, devastating and emotionally rewarding climaxes of the year.
In switching to a different country and culture, Englishman Sean Ellis has produced with integrity and passion in Metro Manila an incredibly powerful and emotional story. This is character driven cinema at its finest and a film that thoroughly deserved its BAFTA nomination.