Manila Skies -- Film Review

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TOKYO -- Loosely based on a news event, Raymond Red's "Manila Skies" is an allegorical tale of a homesick urban laborer who follows Icarus in his grandiose attempt to fly. Conceived as a reaction to the real-time, free-form approach of some Philippine independent filmmakers, this feature is driven by character and story, with a visual aesthetic that is almost nostalgic in its lyricism.

The structure is more radical than meets the eye. The narrative appears to unfold in a linear direction until the spectacular finale. Then it emerges that Red has been playing tricks with the time line.

Its premiere as a Competition candidate at Tokyo International Film Festival met with sympathetic audience reaction. This bodes well for small distribution in Japan. However, unless it makes it to other big festivals, there is only a glimmer of hope for European art-house penetration. Tightening the leisurely first half would be desirable.

In a prologue set in the countryside, an impoverished farmer (Ronnie Lazaro), promising his young son to send him to school in Manila, tells him never to come back if he ever makes it. With one defining cut, the setting is transposed to the capital, where warehouse coolie Raul (Raul Arellano) makes floundering attempts to return to his hometown to see his ailing father.

Unable to negotiate time-off, Raul quits his job. Since he cannot afford the travel costs, he starts job-hunting anew. In the interim, he collects banners used for workers' protest marches for an undisclosed reason. Meanwhile his friends plot a heist to get back at Fernando, the overseas recruitment agent who pocketed their hefty application deposit.

Raul's existence and Manila's urban squalor are depicted in a neo-realist style that harks back to Philippine masters Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal in its social humanism. As Raul senses he has no control on his environment and gradually loses his grip on reality, the narrative tilts towards subjective-fantasy. His fate assumes a Kafkaesque color such as his application for an overseas work permit which descends into surreal hell of red tape.

Sometimes Red appears too absorbed in evoking atmosphere or beefing up the social message with mosaic-like detail, such as newscasts of social unrest and poverty statistics. The result is a slow build-up and a middle section that sags. But the pace picks up as Raul gets embroiled in situations of increasing danger, and soars in the surprise finale.

The evolvement of Raul's character from a walking time bomb to a timeless everyman figure consolidates the film's image of poverty as a vicious circle. Arellano shoulders the weight of this character with a physical presence that conveys insecurity beneath the abrasiveness through crazed yet futile gestures like rubbing his foot over the face of the politician that appears on the TV screen. Whether ogling at a prostitute while she is having a shower, or glowering at someone hostile, his brooding eyes suggestively make the connection between his psychosis and deprivations both material and sexual.

Red chooses only the most fundamental camera movements, avoiding swooping crane shots, handheld wobbles or long takes that stalk characters from behind. Editing is clean and polished. The sultry color scheme of faded yellows, soiled sepia and murky green is given a luscious image texture by the ultra high-definition RED One system notwithstanding a few odd out-focused shots by a second camera of lower quality.

Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival
Production: Pelikula Red in association with Ignite Media, Filmex Inc, Butch Jimenez, Pacific Film Pacific Film Partners
Sales: Pelikula Red
Cast: Raul Arellano, John Arcilla, Ronnie Lazaro, Sue Prado
Director-screenwriter-producer-executive producter-director-of-photography-editor: Raymond Red
Producers-executive producers: Butch Jimenez, David Hukom, Roger Garcia
Production designer: Danny Red
Music: Diwa De Leon
Costume designer: Mara Red
Editor: Jay Halili, David Hukom
No rating, 107 minutes
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