Metro Manila: Sundance Review

Metro Manila

United Kingdom, Philippines (Director: Sean Ellis, Screenwriters: Sean Ellis, Frank E. Flowers)

Seeking a better life, Oscar and his family move from the poverty-stricken rice fields to the big city of Manila, where they fall victim to various inhabitants whose manipulative ways are a daily part of city survival. Cast: Jake Macapagal, John Arcilla, Althea Vega. World Premiere

Less emotion and more action might have better served this near-thriller.

The mean streets of Manila have some tough lessons for a recently arrived couple in Sean Ellis’ observant feature.

PARK CITY -- More of a slow-burner than an outright actioner, Metro Manila reveals how the pitfalls of surviving urban life can drive even a principled family to the ends of desperation. Although it doesn’t have the action muscle of other recently distributed titles from the region, like Indonesia’s The Raid or Thailand's Chocolate, internationally oriented fests will do well to consider programming the film, and it could also prosper in home entertainment formats.

Oscar (Jake Macapagal) and Mai (Althea Vega), a rice-farming couple from the provinces with two young daughters, are on the verge of destitution after their crop fails. Deciding to relocate and find work in the metro Manila region, they end up in teeming Quezon city, where they’re almost immediately duped by predatory local residents, losing the small stake of cash they’ve saved. Without any other options, they move into a shack in the slums until their prospects improve. Oscar finally gets a break when he lands a job as an armored-truck driver, brought aboard by Ong (John Arcilla), a friendly ex-cop who values Oscar’s military experience. As they get to know each other while picking up cash lockboxes around the city, Ong tells Oscar that he’s still suffering the aftereffects of being wounded in a recent holdup that killed his partner.

Lacking any practical skills, Mai’s only choice is to take a gig in a sleazy go-go bar, dancing onstage and keeping customers happy, as she’s instructed by the mamasan. Meanwhile, Ong helps the young family out by letting them move into the apartment that he keeps for his mistress until Oscar can collect his first paycheck to pay the rent, telling them that if the company finds out they’re living in the slums, which are rife with criminality, Oscar will lose his new job.

Once Ong has gained Oscar’s confidence, he reveals his true motivation for helping out his new partner: In the confusion of the earlier holdup, he grabbed one of the lockboxes and has it safely stashed but needs Oscar’s help stealing the key that opens the box from the heavily guarded company headquarters building. Predictably, Oscar refuses, but Ong tells him that if he wants to avoid betrayal and keep his job, he’d best reconsider.

Ellis and co-writer Frank E. Flowers start the movie off more like a drama, gradually increasing the tension as Oscar runs out of options to provide for his family. Since the film’s final twist necessitates a very specific buildup, opportunities to switch gears to full-on action are limited. Within this framework, however, they interweave enough ominous tip-offs to signal the film’s surprising outcome.

Although the pacing would have benefited from some judicious tightening, much of the film’s effectiveness is attributable to the lead actors’ well-modulated performances. Production quality is first-rate, particularly considering the many practical locations required to shoot the film.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Dramatic Competition
Production companies: Independent, Chocolate Frog
Cast: Jake Macapagal, John Arcilla, Althea Vega
Director: Sean Ellis
Screenwriters: Sean Ellis, Frank E. Flowers
Producers: Mathilde Charpentier, Sean Ellis
Executive Producers: Sean Ellis, Enrique Gonzalez, Celine Lopez
Director of photography: Sean Ellis
Production designer: Ian Traifalgar
Music: Robin Foster
Editor: Richard Mettler
No rating, 114 minutes