Saturday, October 12, 2013

Metro Manila

Metro Manila is a weird creature: set in the Philippines, featuring an all-Filipino cast, it's directed and written by UK director Sean Ellis. (It's even the British submission to the Academy Awards' Best Foreign Film category.) While I've seen my share of Philippine movies, this film is a rarity: a view of my country through alien eyes. So what does a film viewed through a foreign lens look like?

The first half of the film hits all of the poverty porn cliches: a poor family from the province heads to the city, completely unprepared for the hardships of urban life. Oscar (Jake Macapagal,) the breadwinner of the family, tries some odd jobs but stuff doesn't pan out... until he gets hired as an armored van driver. Meanwhile, his wife tries to find a job of her own, which leads into the darker side of the metropolis. We've seen it all before in our own independent cinema, so to me these plot points are not surprising, but one cannot help but wonder what foreign audiences will think of the film.

I cannot help but see parallels between the first half of the film and Lino Brocka's Maynila Sa Kuko ng Liwanag. But while Brocka's film has a man alone in his struggle against the city, this film has a family in the center of the struggle, making the focus of Oscar, the protagonist, a bit different. Every decision he makes is not for his own sake, but for the sake of his family.

Still, in both films, I see the city as a malevolent force that seeks to destroy the protagonist; mired in filth, poverty and corruption, the city (including the people who live in it) tries to ensnare the main character and remake him in their own evil image. And Oscar is depicted as pure: he is bound by his morals, by his naivete. We see him despair over drinking and having a good time while his family suffers. He mulls over the consequences of giving in to the corrupt indoctrination of the city.

 While this is all well and good, it's stuff that we've all seen before. And given the foreign perspective, some elements of Filipino culture are left out of the story. Why go to the city right away? Why not stay with relatives/friends in the city instead of randomly looking for a place to stay? The film lacks these little nuances that tell us that despite the familiarity of the setting, it's still a different perspective.

What is remarkable about this film, however, is how it transforms in the second half, where all its storytelling conventions shine. The story turns into a suspense film, and Oscar's dilemmas begin to catch up with him. And the ending comes out of the blue and smacks you in the face. It's a riveting conclusion, even though some may see it coming.

Technically the film is sound. There are a lot of memorable visuals in the film, notably in the last half. The film shows both the cityscape and the slums in stark contrast to each other. The editing is quite brisk and there aren't a lot of lingering shots, although those shots that do linger are quite memorable.

Metro Manila suffers from a plodding, cliched first half, but compensates with a brilliant second half that manages to save the film... if you have the patience to wait for the first part's storytelling fruits to ripen..