Most times a movie has to walk the tricky tightrope between sensitivity, action mayhem, pacing, character development and social commentary. They’re all movie clichés and most movies jumble all of these elements up and they become horrible and clumsy afternoon soaps. But in some movies, it all just clicks perfectly. Metro Manila is the newest gem to join the elite club.
A Filipino movie with British producers, Metro Manila is a neat little drama-thriller that brings a quietly artistic taste of poverty, sacrifice and desperation to a sub-genre that is disinterested in pandering to the clichés of those very elements. Screened at last year’s Sundance Film festival, Metro Manila is what I’d call a thinking man’s drama thriller. It also feels like a hidden gem that had been sealed in a dusty shelf for years, and I mean that as a compliment. It was filmed in 2011 and has won rave reviews since it released in limited territories. And the reason why you should watch it is not just because it’s a good film, it’s also because Hansal Mehta, the director of the excellent Shahid is releasing the remake a couple of months later.
The plot is simple – after a factory closes down and his family is on the verge of poverty, a Filipino farmer named Oscar (played by Jake Macapagal) leaves his village to look for work in the city. Manila isn’t very kind to him and after a string of setbacks he finally lands a job as a guard in an armored truck company. Things look rosy on the surface but Oscar soon realizes that his ‘chance encounter’ with his employer may be more that meets the eye, and that his partner Ong (John Arcilla) seems to have a plan of his own.
The film is a dark and frequently depressing tale of the ways in which acceptable violence can be expected in normal life, and it’s not shy about exposing the frustrating truths about life after military service in major countries. Oscar is an ex army cadet, but has no means to support his pregnant wife and two kids despite serving his own country. We’re invited to ride along with these characters and their desperate and self-destructive days, as Metro Manila makes a few powerful statements about the imbalance of society, the allure of easy money and the lengths to which anyone can go to earn a few coins of currency.
The social commentary doesn’t come across as heavy-handed thanks to great performances from the leads, especially from Arcilla who plays our hero’s unreliable partner. Although not without a few melodramatic missteps and a handful of predictable moments, the film is quite intense, and not ‘Hollywood’ in any discernible way. Director Ellis also reduces the dramatic quotient to a minimum with subtle electronic music and minimalist photography. He is also to be commended for sticking to his convictions and making an authentic Filipino film to showcase a side of the world we aren’t very familiar with. It’s a mix of a convectional action drama with the atmosphere of his horror thriller The Broken, and it sure will net the filmmaker a few new directing gigs.
If Filipino movies were as good as Metro Manila I suspect their industry would have stayed afloat. And if this movie manages to get a wider audience through the internet, it can only be good for both the audiences and the industry. It’s up to Hansal Mehta and his star Rajkumar Yadav to deliver a decent Hindi remake now.