Monday, May 12, 2014

Metro Manila (2013)

Despite a premise not too unfamiliar, British filmmaker Sean Ellis, with his "Metro Manila" (2013), packs a mighty solid punch in a genre-bending work of cinema that combines elements of neorealist cinema, noir crime thrillers, social dramas and family melodramas.

So when Oscar (Jake Macapagal), a poor farmer from the rural Philippines, struggles to feed his family of four with meager returns from the year's crops, he decides to move to the capital city of Manila in order to try and make ends meet. Not surprisingly, it isn't all meant to be hunky dory, as the naive, gullible village-folk begin to experience the big bad urban world in all its ugly glory. The film chronicles the hardships of the family as they become victims of swindling and exploitation in the ruthless new environment they get pushed into.

Ellis shoots the film in a territory foreign to him, with actors foreign to him and in a language foreign to him. Yet he appears to be quite comfortable at the helm and it doesn't seem like he is working with foreign material or that we are watching a motion picture that isn't a native Filipino production. The film unfolds in a gritty style with camerawork that gives off a very realistic feel to the proceedings. 

It is noteworthy how Ellis presents a striking contrast as he moves the action from the country to the city. While the first few minutes in the village are soothingly serene to look at and to feel, the family's migration to the city is followed by a jarring din of vehicular traffic and the bustling life of the city exploding with people. This distinction in the quality of life in both settings is also juxtaposed against a tremendous gap between the rich and the poor in the city, caused due to rapid urbanization, economic globalization and uncontrolled immigration. This huge divide and the resulting insensitivity, cut-throat competition, selfishness and an overall dog-eat-dog atmosphere is very accurately portrayed in some minor but memorable sequences.

So while the urbanized viewer may know that Oscar might be falling for a trap when something comes alarmingly easy to him, it is very much believable why Oscar himself may not be aware that he is being taken for a ride. He is from the country, after all. In his experience, the very few people that they come across out there, stand up for each other, and are friends. But then little does he know that the guys who he helps get jobs, would refuse to even recognize him when their time comes to help him, for everyone is out there to fend for themselves.

It is interesting how, in a couple of scenes depicting Oscar taking a step that could be a gamble that may or may not pay off, there are messages on walls or hoardings that speak of submission of one's fate to higher powers. So in a way the script itself is praying for Oscar as he makes that phone call and a big sign that reads "God Bless" is seen right above him. In another scene, a glow sign screams "In God we Trust"!

Setbacks follow and even a hand-to-mouth existence becomes increasingly difficult. Driven to the edge, Oscar's beautiful wife Mai (Althea Vega) ends up working in a seedy nightclub as an exotic dancer, while Oscar secures himself a job as a security personnel in an armored vehicle company for transporting valuables. He becomes a protege of, and befriends Ong (John Arcilla), a man who showers a great deal of kindness on Oscar, but not without a hint of dubious intentions. 

By this time, Ellis' strong narration and characterization has ensured full emotional involvement from the audiences. The viewer watches with bated breath and awaits any moment of respite or a ray of hope for the Ramirez family, as every setback that befalls them doesn't fail to make one feel an emotional surge. Part of the gripping nature of the screenplay stems from how much we find ourselves rooting for these characters. Moreover, Ellis keeps everything under control and doesn't veer into extreme melodramatic territory.

This social drama blends seamlessly into the crime thriller domain while retaining the inherent moral conflicts, in an almost invisible transition, and culminates into its crushing but clever finale. The narrative is taut and tense with its fair share of twists, some predictable ones while others shockingly unpredictable, holding the audiences on tenterhooks.

One wishes that the occasionally stagey and stilted dialog and acting was restrained a little. Some repetitive interchange, which is almost hammered into the audience, also does disservice to the film by making at least one event quite predictable in the film. A couple of more intense moments, especially, important flashback sequences come off as heavy-handed and over-the-top, thereby taking away from the otherwise naturalistic look of the film.

However, Ellis does a commendable job of capturing the murky, sleazy underbelly of the city and the moral corruption of ordinary individuals that comes with it as they attempt to shape their existence. He infuses the right kind of emotional quotient that resonates well with the viewers, enough to demand their complete attention. This is accentuated, of course, thanks to a strong performance from Jake Macapagal, who delivers an incredibly balanced act that makes one instantly connect to his situation.

Do take a trip to this "Metro Manila". It is well worth your time, not only as an engrossing and powerful film experience but also as a thought-provoking social commentary, a cautionary tale and a heartbreaking account of struggle and sacrifice.

Score: 8/10

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