Metro Manila took me on quite the emotional rollercoaster. At first, I was skeptical. By the end, I was clutching the edge of my seat and anticipating filmmaker Sean Ellis’ next move.
Let’s start at the beginning. Those initial weary sensations were drawn from how Ellis envisioned impoverished areas of the Philippines. Without a moment’s notice, the filmmaker hurls us into the damp streets alongside the Ramirez family. Times are tougher than one could imagine and the price of rice is dwindling. Rice farmer Oscar (played by Jake Macapagal) and his wife Mai (played by Althea Vega) agree that living is becoming impossible at their current homestead. They make an executive decision to try their luck in Manila, a city with more employment opportunities but also overflowing with rampant busyness. Oscar eventually finds employment, but his new security job challenges him in ways he certainly did not expect.
Ellis wants to show gritty shadiness during these earlier scenes to hammer in how desperately unfit the conditions are, but the cinematography records differently.
Ellis has an attractive movie starring good-looking actors. If he was trying to portray anything other than a poor lifestyle, he wouldn’t have heard a peep out of me. But, because Macapagal and Vega consistently look smooth during the snappy editing and under the all-too-prestine lighting, the audience is always reminded that Metro Manila is a film production. We have some hesitation when believing in the story.
Once the Ramirez’s arrive in Manila and their choices and stakes become riskier, Ellis figures out how to use the camera to transfer these taut feelings to his audience, which wonderfully throws us deeper into the movie.
The scenes that work best are the ones that take place in the driver and passenger seats of the armoured car Oscar must helm. It’s made clear that Manila is prone to low-rent thieves who hold officers at gunpoint, and try to knock over deliveries. The filmmaker and his accomplished performers do a fantastic job at making our hearts pound. The scene could involve Oscar and his seasoned partner Ong (played by John Arcilla) arriving to pick up goods, or involve Oscar cautiously walking from a doorway back to the vehicle. We honestly don’t know what will happen. The sweltering anxiety sinks into the film’s tightly framed shots, and into our psyches.
Metro Manila is a sharp flick that succeeds with its docudrama format, making us feel riveted to the often upsetting circumstances. It’s otherwise a difficult film to categorize.
In terms of the story, it’s an incredibly effective morality tale, but has too wide of a spectrum to be a distinct character study. It can be compared to In America’s crowd pleasing qualities colliding with the intensity found in a movie like Training Day, but Metro Manila is best described as a drama driven by a faithful filmmaker who will take considerable chances. It’s a perfect way to start off this year’s Fall moviegoing season.