Posted September 12, 2013 by Nicolo Parungo in Movies/TV

Advance Movie Review: Metro Manila

Metro Manila is NOT a fun film. The winner of the Prix du Public at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is an ugly look at Philippine society through the eyes of the suffering as they continue to suffer, hoping to find a better way to live. A lot of scenes in the movie are heart-breaking, shocking and tense with director Sean Ellis showing us why he is a master of his craft perfectly capturing the sense of being caught between a rock and a hard place. Metro Manila is not fun, and isn’t perfect but it is fascinating.

Looking for a better life away from the rice fields of Banaue, Oscar (Jake Macapagal) and his wife Mai (Althea Vega) move to Metro Manila in hopes of finding a better future for their family, however once they arrive they are manipulated by the locals and end up staying in the streets with no money or food. Oscar goes through various odd jobs – some without pay – while his wife and daughters wait for him in the slums. Oscar eventually secures a job as an armoured truck driver thanks to his military background while Mai is forced to be a dancer in an “adult” bar.

The cinematography is superb capturing the needed looks and feelings of the various situations our leads find themselves in with some terrific camera angles and various shots allowing us to experience their desperation, hopelessness and occasional small victories. The production design is great as well further capturing our interest and sympathy. The aforementioned adult bar is sleazy and their slum home will not be mistaken for a 5 star hotel. Metro Manila also earns its R-13 rating with a good amount of violence and nudity. The film is not for the faint of heart as the story takes us to places we would never want to find ourselves in as we watch these characters get broken down not knowing if they will be able to build themselves back up.

Jake Macapagal further captures the sense of dread with his performance of a likable and naive farmer; coerced into various situations for the sake of a better future, tugging your heartstrings as he goes through obstacle after obstacle to the point that we really want him to succeed. John Arcilla is also solid as Ong – Oscar’s partner in the armoured truck – who manages to be funny, crude and strangely sympathetic.

With all of these qualities Metro Manila should be a great film. It’s gripping has great performances, some stellar cinematography and good production design, but in spite of all of that the film almost lost me near the end. The slow pace is one reason; while Ellis does use this as a means for characterization it does tend to drag the film down a bit.

Then there’s the climax which feels random and is rather weak. Before it the film is treated as a serious point of view to the less fortunate Filipinos who struggle to make ends meet for their loved ones, but with it the tone shifts from being a realistic portrayal of the poverty stricken to being just another fairly intriguing indie movie. Without spoiling it the climax involves some overly long exposition and a heel turn that feels less “corrupt Filipino officer” and more “moustache twirling villain“. Admittedly it still runs with the themes of hope and desperation and to give credit to Ellis and the actors it IS still well shot and acted, but it doesn’t work with the established tone and the movie suffers for it.

There are also various unnecessary sub-plots, the most glaring one being Mai’s pregnancy. It is treated as a big deal when we find out, but there is absolutely no pay off to this. It is literally brought up then forgotten about until near the end. To make matters worse she doesn’t tell her husband and the film doesn’t bother giving us a storyline reason for her to not tell Oscar. One of the kids also has a toothache early on, but is resolved off camera with the exposition for it sounding like an advertisement for free health care.

There’s also the foreshadowing in the first scene. I honestly thought it would lead to something of importance to the plot and characters later, but as the film went on with its turtle pace I almost forgot about it. When we finally get back to the scene the result is eye rolling. Again I won’t spoil it because it’s related to the film’s ending, however I will say that it definitely could have been cut and nothing important would have been lost.

Despite its glaring flaws Metro Manila is still worth watching. It’s a fine look at the darker aspects of our beloved country with some great performances and shots. It definitely could have been better, but as it stands it’s an above average indie film.

A big thank you to Solar for the advanced screening. The film will be released on October 9 2013

Nicolo Parungo