Metro Manila: In the claws of the city
THINKING SPOT - Bianca Locsin (The Philippine Star) - September 29, 2013 - 12:00am

A friend whose family runs a film school in France was at Cannes early this year and wrote to tell me that: “word around Cannes is that the Philippines is making good films again.”  It’s certainly turning out to be a banner year for Filipino film, whether by saying this one is referring to films made by Filipinos, films set in the Philippines or films focusing on particularly Filipino themes. 

Over the past couple of days, aside from the Philippines announcing that Transit would be our entry to the Academy Awards, two other countries chose Filipino films to represent them in the same category — Ilo-Ilo, a film by a Singaporean director on being raised by a Filipina nanny during the Asian financial crisis, is Singapore’s entry, and Metro Manila, Sean Ellis’s postcard to our nation’s capital, is the UK’s.

I remember meeting Ellis, his co-producers and Jake Macapagal, who would later be cast as Metro Manila’s lead, during the first weeks of their venture.  They were looking for office space, actors and someone to lend them a plane — all for as little money as possible. Ellis was going to be directing and shooting by himself over the period of just a month, as the bulk of the money they had raised would go to editing.  My reaction to their discussion was much the same as the one I had when one of the producers of On The Job told me, over a year ago, that they were making a mainstream action film they hoped would make it to Cannes — “This is crazy talk.”

Metro Manila, which won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic category of Sundance, opens next week, here, in its eponymous city. OTJ, which stormed our theaters, though not so much our wallets, this past September has just started its US run, after premiering at Cannes. Both films tell their stories deftly, reflecting the completeness of vision and firmness of hand of assured directors.  Matti has been in the local film business for a while.  The UK, it seems, has been waiting for Ellis to make good on his early promise. 

Aside from demonstrating that their directors have come into their own, both films herald what I sincerely hope will be a renaissance in Philippine action and crime-drama movie-making.  It’s been a while since we’ve had a proper shoot-’em-up or gritty urban tale break the tedium of broad comedy, romantic intrigue and painstaking socialist realism.  It’s been a while since we’ve had a proper action star.  To my recollection, the last real one was Robin Padilla but even his most recent outing was in a telenovela.

Eric Matti’s film begins with a literal bang and doesn’t stop, accelerating through its scenes with the speed and efficiency of the hit men whose lives it portrays, its characters and camera careening through the slums, public institutions, elite enclaves and transport veins of our capital city.

Metro Manila is a much slower burn, drawing you in before punching you in the gut.  It is a little more poetic than OTJ, Ellis’s camera caressing the misty peaks of the Cordilleras and lingering on the movement of armored trucks as they move hard currency through the city’s alleys and highways.

Metro Manila begins with Jake Macapagal’s “Oscar” silhouetted against his rural home, one which he and his family are driven from by a need, literally, for seed money, straight into the arms of our capital. The story of their inevitable descent into the dirty belly of a sprawling megacity, as indifferent to the blessings it bestows as it is to the punishments it inflicts, is so familiar as to be cliché. They are, in short order, cheated, hustled, tempted and betrayed, clinging all the while to what appears to be a rural-bred innocence and naiveté.  

A turn in their fortune, in the shape of a job for Oscar at an armored truck company and friendship with John Arcilla’s “Ong,” only eventually serves to underscore the Janus face of the city and its hardened inhabitants. But hinted at here and there in elliptical scenes, is a secret that, in the end, shows that beneath his decency and apparent timidity, Oscar is not without resources.

At a pre-screening of Metro Manila for a well-heeled audience, someone queried whether the film was too grim, offering little if any hope to the Filipino urban poor.  Ellis and Celine Lopez, one of his co-producers, chose to emphasize Oscar’s goodness.  I had rather hoped they would have admitted, baldly, that their film shows the true nature of life in our city, how it forces the desperate among us to make choices out of no choices at all, that full of soul as Manila might be, it is the kind of place that, once it has sunk its claws into you, will not let go, or at least will not do so without exacting as high a price as it possibly can.  One thing is for sure, as everyone who has seen it has said, you will never look at those ubiquitous armored trucks gliding through the city, as well as the guards who drive and secure them, the same way after you have seen the film — and I suggest you do.

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