Film Title: Metro Manila
Director: Sean Ellis
Starring: Jake Macapagal, Althea Vega, John Arcilla, Ana Abad-Santos
Running Time: 115 min
Now here’s something unexpected. Sean Ellis, the British director of the so-so Cashback and the muddled The Broken, has travelled to the Philippines and knocked together a very exciting, nicely produced combination of harsh verité and sleek action. At times it functions like a glossy Pacific take on Italian neo-realism. Elsewhere it looks like a mission from Grand Theft Auto V.
Jake Macapagal plays Oscar, a farmer from the provinces who, after rice prices plummet, decides to move his wife and children to the big city. You will know from the first churning moments that he is unlikely to immediately fall backwards into urban abundance. The family get ripped off in a housing scam. His wife finds herself working as an escort in seedy bar. A construction job leads Oscar nowhere. “We made a big mistake coming to Manila, ” he says. You think so?
Then Oscar has a strange stroke of luck. At an interview for a security company, an employee takes a liking too him, offers him a clean shirt and provides him with tips to win over the boss. Then his new pal finds him an apartment. The phrase “too good to be true” will soon be squirming its way towards the front of your brain.
The earthy detail of street life is well handled and feels entirely genuine. The later sections involving guns, trucks and bags of money have a zippy energy that recalls Michael Mann and the golden period of Hong Kong action cinema.
Maybe those two elements don’t quite fit together. Metro Manila can’t boast the organic unity that made City of God such a special film, and the final, cosy denouement feels like it’s been plucked from an unlikely barroom yarn. But Ellis must be praised for pulling off a most unlikely reinvention. He has been rewarded with selection as the UK’s entry for the foreign language picture Oscar. Who saw that coming?