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British Film Review: Metro Manila
Metro Manila begins badly. Set in rural Philippines, it shows the tough life young couple Oscar and Mai live as local farmers. When their latest harvest returns less money than it will cost to buy seed for the following year, they very quickly decide the best course of action is to move to Manila in search of better work. This opening betrays what becomes a richly rewarding and absorbing film. Written, produced and directed by Sean Ellis (Cashback, The Broken), this hasty, underdeveloped start makes it difficult to engage and empathise with the plight of these characters whilst also implying Ellis knows little about rural life in the Philippines and is too concerned with whisking them off to the exotic, dangerous locale of Manila.
Thankfully, once in Manila the film picks up, Oscar and Mai are given room to grow and develop and Ellis is able to unfold a story that moves between drama, thriller and action whilst exploring themes around gender roles in society, the underbelly of Manila and the length a man will go to in order to protect his family. It’s a tough film to enjoy, but one which is equally rewarding. It presents a harsh view of life in Manila, and one which only gets worse, as even characters who seem redeemable end up just as bad, or worse than those who exploit Oscar and Mai is more obvious and transparent.
It doesn’t take long for Oscar and Mai’s innocence to be taken advantage off. At a job centre, Oscar’s lack of drive and hunger means he misses out on a potential job. Soon though a local has told him of some affordable accommodation. This is the first sign that appearances are deceiving in Metro Manila. Over time, just when Oscar’s luck seems to have run out, and his wife is forced to earn money the only way poor, attractive women can in the city, Oscar is given the chance to become a courier for an armoured truck company who collect and ferry large deposits of money across the city. We, and Oscar, are told very early on that its perilously dangerous job – in a city depicted how Manila is here, crime it would seem lurks around every corner, and very few people are honest. Most of the money they seem to collect and transport belongs to less than desirable individuals.
As Oscar begins his life as an armoured truck driver, things appear to be looking up for he is taken under the wing of John Arcilla’s Douglas Ong; an experienced colleague who recommends Oscar for the job then befriends him. The real strength of the film lies in these segments. The chemistry and developing relationship between Oscar and Douglas is fantastically played by both actors. Oscar completely out of his depth; Douglas beginning as if he plans to take advantage of him, but over time a genuine sense of affection appears to grow between.
Once Metro Manila establishes itself as a thriller the film really takes off. The constant threat of raids or attacks on the truck generates a sense of unease throughout. You’ve come to care about Oscar and want nothing more than for his life to be safe and secure. Ellis’ writing and directing here is excellent, keeping the audience on the edge of their seat and delivering a climax which is both unexpected and devastating.
Metro Manila is something of a mixed bag. The opening act plays out like the worst tourism film for Manila you could imagine, but once the film finds it stride and moves into a thriller it’s a fantastic film which deserves to raise the awareness of a writer/director who has a great future ahead of him.
Metro Manilla is released on DVD 10th February 2014
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