Following on from the impressive critical success of Gareth Evans’ profitable Indonesian action thriller The Raid, it appears that travelling to Southeast Asia to make movies is a rather wise move for British filmmakers at present, as Sean Ellis’ Philippines set Metro Manila is a striking piece of cinema, as a powerful tale of family and sacrifice in the face of adversity.
We peer into the poverty stricken lives of Oscar Ramirez (Jake Macapagal) and his wife Mai (Althea Vega), who decide to take their two young daughters to Manila, seeking a brighter future in the capital city. However the hustle and bustle of city life overwhelms this humble family, as they find themselves sleeping rough, desperately searching for paid work. As Mai reluctantly takes employment at a local strip club, Oscar lands a dependable job at an armoured truck company, collecting and delivering prized goods across the city – however there is a high risk involved as local hoodlums try to get their hands on the high-value possessions passing hands. Although feeling somewhat assured alongside his confident and experienced partner Ong (John Arcilla), Oscar still discovers that this so-called lucky break may not be so propitious after all.
Metro Manila is a hugely moving piece; a stirring film you can’t help but become completely absorbed in. Right from the very start until the bitter end, Ellis has his viewer totally transfixed and emotionally invested in this tale. Much of the tenderness derives from the sheer, unconditional elation displayed by this family when something goes their way. It’s brilliantly judged, as their joy is expressed with so much purity at luxuries we deem so insignificant and take for granted somewhat; such as running water or shelter, no matter the condition.
Ellis manages to avoid any feelings of self-pity though, and despite delving into the lives of incredibly poor individuals, who live in the slums and have to endure unbearable hardships, we retain a sense of empathy and understanding without any emotional manipulation, but with genuine compassion towards the Ramirez collective. This is helped along by the outstanding – and so endearing – performance by Macapagal, who earns the trust and sympathy of the viewer from the word go, as you dread anything ominous happening to him, caring for him as you would a friend. The character is poignantly well-crafted, with some incredibly sweet moments littered across this feature, such as when he carries his lunch around with him all day and night, wanting to savour it for later and share with his family. Also, how he addresses friends and colleagues as ‘sir’. Even thinking of Oscar now makes me want to shed a tear or two.
To accommodate such a sympathetic protagonist, we need a strong, affecting plot, and in this instance that’s a given. There are times when the story dips somewhat, and you fear that Ellis may be leading you down a path you’d otherwise wish to avoid – yet he manages to consistently turn it around triumphantly, and any time you question the route the film is taking, or the plot points that are thrown in, you are instantly humbled and delightfully surprised at what transpires.
Metro Manila comes up trumps in every respect, but particularly within its narrative. The masterful way in which this tale has been told is almost perfect, and you struggle to envisage how any filmmaker could take this idea and then proceed to bring it to life so astutely and majestically on the big screen, to provoke the ultimate emotional reaction from the audience. We are in the business of storytelling after all, and in Ellis we have a director who certainly knows how to tell one helluva story.