There’s an old screenwriting maxim that says the most compelling stories occur when characters have no choice but to act. In other words, if you want to portray desperate measures, you’d better create desperate times too.
In this excellent heist flick British writer/director Sean Ellis takes this idea to the extreme, piling indignity after indignity on Filipino farmer Oscar (Jake Macapagal) and his family as they move from the peaceful poverty of the countryside to the desperate squalor of the city.
By the time Oscar eventually reaches breaking point, you’ll be praying for him to do something – anything – to save himself, however dangerous.
Ellis isn’t adverse to a little risk-taking of his own. After being Oscar-nominated for his 2004 short Cashback, and having made several English-language films, he decided to branch out and shoot Metro Manila as a tourist abroad, completely in the Tagalog language. The result is a fascinating juxtaposition of familiar story beats and unfamiliar backdrop.
Because Oscar is a fish out of water too, we discover the city, and its seedy side, as he does.
There’s plenty of local colour – endless flashing neon, endemic corruption, a hospital sign ironically proclaiming “In God We Trust” – in fact, too much for our heroes, who soon find themselves squatting in the slums with nothing to show for it but their dignity. They don’t even hang on to that for long.
Wife Mai (Althea Vega) starts working in a hostess bar, while Oscar gets a job driving an armoured truck, and life expectancy is low. “This is the Wild West!” says his new partner Ong (John Arcilla), a jovial old-timer who tests Oscar with little transgressions that gradually escalate as the plot mechanics kick in.
Taking so long to turn from travelogue to thriller is a gamble, but as Oscar’s opening voiceover assures us, “No matter how long the procession, it always ends at the church door.”
And when Metro Manila pays off, it pays off big – it’s been so frontloaded with character detail that we’re heavily invested in what happens to everyone.
One heart-breaking sequence crosscuts between Mai degrading herself, while Oscar drinks shots with his new colleagues. Oscar locks himself in the toilet, ostensibly to throw up, but it’s even more shameful than that: he’s crying.
By the end of this compassionate thriller, you might be too.
A moving morality tale set in a world rarely seen in western cinema, Metro Manila is an underdog drama that feels as authentic as it is original.