This darkly impressive, Manila-set genre-bender is marred by predictable plotting.
The poor Ramirez family are paid a pittance in the Filipino countryside, so decide to head to Manila where they believe prosperity awaits. It's the American Dream abroad. As that tends not to work out for film heroes these days, now would be a good time to wonder how the city will knock the stuffing out of this family. Director and DoP Sean Ellis creates a shiver-inducing mood that cuts through the familiarity of the set-up. Looming over a bus in which the Ramirez family ride, the sky is all dramatic gun-metal greys and blues. Under such menacing heavens, the poor family feel like lambs to the slaughter.
Once amid the hustle-bustle of Manila, the ponderous slowness of the photography shrinks under noisy traffic and barbed dialogue. With these enriching silences gone, events start to feel predictable. Oscar (Jake Macapagal), Mai (Althea Vega) and their two children make a 'friend' whose sharp teeth can be seen glistening from outer space. It's not long before they're living in the slums taking stock of options ranging from bad to worse.
Mai takes the path tramped down by the hundreds of pretty, poverty-stricken leading ladies before her, going to work for a seedy bar where she all-but prostitutes herself. Ellis has defended this standard-issue character arch by pointing out that the obvious is really happening. He may be right in this respect, yet doesn't give Mai's plight the screen time to emerge as she (and the social realism her presence represents) is sidelined by the emerging thriller driven by Oscar's job as an armoured truck driver.
It turns out that in the mad, bad city of Manila, no one is playing it straight. Oscar’s driver/partner Ong (John Arcilla) inducts him into vice. Oscar, alienated, tries to walk a line between keeping his job and keeping his morals. Frequent scenes of water and showering ram home the central tension. Can anyone stay clean in this dirty world? As action is whittled down to one lean plot strand and the early vistas are left for dusty streets and dark interiors, one wonders whether there is a political message in this genre-bender.
Sometimes Metro Manila plays like a cry for help for poor city folk but Ellis is too focused on jumping through dull genre hoops to leave his audience with an intact political impression. As such this curious work sacrifices its character to plot and is slightly lesser for it.
Read our interview with director Sean Ellis.
Directed by a Brit in the Filipino language, Tagalog. Well played, sir.
Flits between frustrating and predictable and engaging and intriguing.
Good but could have been great.