SEAN ELLIS’S METRO MANILA — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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If you’re looking for tough, vital cinema then look no further than Metro Manila from British filmmaker Sean Ellis. Ellis co-wrote, co-produced, and directed this thoroughly engrossing drama (while also operating the camera and acting as his own, rather brilliant, cinematographer) that takes a harsh, grim look at the contemporary realities of the poor who are living in the dangerous but vibrant big city of Manila. The story was born out of a personal trip that Ellis had made to the Philippines and the events and encounters he witnessed and had with the local people and the city itself became the starting points for this fantastic movie. What emerges is a complex character study infused with propulsive genre elements that continually ratchets up the suspense to the breaking point, with a highly satisfying conclusion that felt extremely well earned. And while this film is technically a 2013 release, it never found an American distributor, and is only available, from what I can tell, as a streaming option via Amazon or on a Region 2 Blu-ray (how I viewed) that’s available from Amazon UK; I’m calling it a 2015 release. The fact that a work such as this one couldn’t find a home in the states is a real testament to the demands and desires of the studios and their bean-counters. It doesn’t fit any traditional molds, there are no big stars, it’s uncompromising with its vision, and it never succumbs to cheap moralizing in place of honest emotion and resolution, even if the final act involves some very careful planning on the part of the lead protagonist in order for everything to fall into place. Ellis has grabbed me with this movie and has now forced me to pay attention to him as an artist.

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Metro Manila centers on a poor rice farming family from the Northern region of the Philippines. After finding out that their seed haul won’t bring in enough money for the season, Oscar and his wife Mai and their two young children set off for Manila, in the hopes of somehow bettering their lives. Of course, the naïve farmers are taken advantage of almost immediately upon entering the city, and they’re forced to make ends meet any way they can. Oscar eventually lands a job as an armored truck escort, a highly dangerous job in a highly volatile city, and he’s paired with a fast-talking partner named Ong who quickly takes Oscar under his wing and shows him the ropes. Meanwhile, the only work that Mai can find, as she’s a natural beauty, is as a dancer at one of the local strip clubs, where she’s made to deal with drunkards and leeches who are looking for some cheap fun. The film poses the all-important question: What do you do for your family when push comes to shove and there are mouths to feed and teeth that need to be looked at by a dentist? You do whatever it is that you can. The film kicks into high gear around the one hour mark when Oscar realizes that all is not exactly what it seems at his job, and the complexities of his co-workers begin to come to light. How it all plays out will be left for you to discover, but what Ellis has managed to do so well is convey the hardships and the plight of these people while never condescending to anyone at any time; the film feels authentic, lived-in, and for better or worse, incredibly raw. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Jake Macapagal delivering a searing performance as Oscar, and as the film progresses, you really get the sense of how much he loves his family and how he’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep them safe. John Arcilla steals all of his scenes as the conflicted and excitable Ong, and as Mai, Althea Vega brought a natural tenderness to her role of a mother who refuses to be humiliated more than once, especially in front of her children.

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Made with extreme formal care and boasting a visual aesthetic that is both lushly poetic and incredibly visceral when called for, Ellis has seemingly made exactly the film he set out to make, and while never cynical or preachy, the film is a thoroughly bleak reminder of how hellish life can be for people who are living in poverty in an area such as the one showcased in this film. The action scenes crackle with immediacy and fury, and the film’s numerous flashback sequences amp up the cerebral quality of the entire narrative, almost providing the story with an eerie, almost ghostly subtext.  Metro Manila works on multiple levels: It’s a thrilling and unexpected heist film, an intense family drama that anyone can relate too, a sly social statement about an entire nation, and a fantastic piece of overall storytelling that takes familiar elements and subverts them continually with what seems to be genuine excitement for the element of surprise. There was a point at which, I’d say roughly half-way, where I thought I knew where this meticulously planned piece of work was heading, and I’m so happy to say that I was wrong on almost every count. The ending is appropriately dark but at the same time oddly uplifting, and even though the last act almost invites extra scrutiny because of how intensely detailed it all is, everything adds up wonderfully, resulting in an absorbing piece of entertainment that makes important topical points without ever becoming over the top. Metro Manila is a film that not enough people seem to have seen and I really hope that this changes very soon, and that Ellis is fast at work with another movie.

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