By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms
Monday, 29 April 2013
Sundance London 2013: Metro Manila Review
Director: Sean Ellis
Writers: Sean Ellis, Frank E. Flowers
Starring: Jake Macapagal, Althea Vega, John Arcilla, Moises Magisa
Synopsis: A farmer, Oscar (Macapagal), his wife Mai (Vega) and his two children are struggling on the rice hills of northern Philippines. In hope of finding prosperity they move to the bustling metropolitan of Manila. As difficult as it is finding work, Oscar finally gets hired as an armoured truck driver/security. It’s a dangerous job that magnifies the criminality and corruption around him.
Cinematic vérité is a tough aesthetic to crack - it relies on believability in the work of fiction. Sean Ellis’ Metro Manila is one of the latest films able to capture a realism that’s practically faultless.
Even with a run-time that feels slightly longer than it should in sections, the majority of the editing and structure is brilliantly handled. Starting the film off with a brief but informative character and setting introduction, Ellis sets a tone that is intrinsic up until the last shot. It is mostly a migrant story, with some crime thriller integrated into it, reliant on the gloom of the dog-eat-dog world outlook. The crime aspect will not play into the film until half way, but from the start it's without a doubt that this is aiming to be a biting and elegiac drama (and nothing but successful with this aspiration). You are never without sympathy for Oscar and his family, achieved through a meticulous combination of writing and acting.
The role of the husband is commonly the one who brings home the bread. Oscar is the epitome of this persona, constantly striving to protect his family and give them all he can. Played with undeniable and awards-worthy elegance by Jake Macapagal, this is one of the most caring and altruistic husband/father characters since George Bailey. Oscar is the common man, both fearful and brave when it comes to facing harsh realities. As he becomes close to his armoured car partner, Ong (John Arcilla), he greatly highlights the decency of man aside the more flawed representation of humanity.
Also trying to help the family is Oscar’s wife Mai. As perilous as Oscar’s job can be, Mai is part of a seedy men’s club, having to strip away her innocence in order to get money. As the audience see the grim life Mai has to experience, Oscar can only imagine. In one heartbreaking scene, Oscar fights the tears away during a night out with co-workers - his tears mixing with the liquid of copious alcohol - thinking to himself of what Mai is concurrently having to do.
Moments of drama and upset are always touching – Ellis knowing how to create an atmosphere expertly. The scenes of tension and violence equal Ellis’ dramatic capabilities, with action ferocious and heart-pounding. The armoured car focal point could have been exploited with several stick-ups and hijackings but Ellis holds back, making the moments all-the-more nail-biting because of it.
Ellis’ direction, cinematography and writing (co-credited with Frank E. Flowers) are stunning, anchored by a sterling cast and location work. Nearly every element seems honed to perfection, with a superb ending to certainly leave a definite impression. Occasional scenes drag out but this is mostly an artistic and acting triumph.