Metro Manila DVD Review
What’s It About? Oscar and Mai Ramirez move, with their two daughters, from their lives of poverty in the Northern Philippines to the capital city, Metro Manila. They do what they have to do to survive in the harsh surroundings of the city, learning difficult lessons along the way.
Verdict: What starts out as the grim social realist story of a family forced to leave their home – where farming is no longer a viable source of income – and head to the big city to find work, by the final third becomes a fully-fledged heist movie. It isn’t prosperity which awaits Oscar (Jake Macapagal), Mai (Althea Vega) and their two children in Manila though. The city is enormous, unaccommodating and its inhabitants more streetwise and corrupted than the Ramirez family. Within a couple of days of arriving, they’re scammed out of every penny they have. Luckily, Oscar finds work driving armoured vans which carry money and valuables between clients and the company headquarters.
His colleague, with whom he shares the confines of the armoured truck referred to as “the coffin”, is Ong (John Arcilla) a boundlessly generous and giving companion to Oscar. Mai on the other hand finds work at a seedy bar where she dances dead-eyed and is forced into all but prostituting herself. By the time the owner of the bar suggests in startlingly flippant fashion that Mai’s nine-year-old daughter, Angel, should start to work too (apparently she would appeal to the bar’s “special clients”), it’s clear that Mai’s innocence and naivety have long been corrupted. Oscar then discovers that Ong’s willingness to give wasn’t borne out of selflessness at all – quite the opposite.
The family dynamic is well observed throughout by director and director of photography Sean Ellis; and in that regard the film’s shift towards heist thriller territory comes as a slight disappointment with Mai’s storyline moving aside to make room for Oscar’s finale. Still, the transition works well and remains resolutely human. Metro Manila is a film simply about desperation: while Ellis captures the essence of Manila expertly – exploring the crowds at head height and juxtaposing angered skies with the city’s concrete and steel framework – this story could have taken place anywhere.
Near the start of the film, as the family move from their rural home to Manila, Angel complains of a toothache. Oscar tells her, “In Manila there are lots of dentists. They can fix it there.” Once there, sitting at the side of the road watching the occasional train emerge out of the black night and rattle past, Angel reminds her father of his promise. When Mai goes for a health check, she asks the doctor if he can help her daughter’s toothache, his response “I’m not a dentist”. The next time we see Angel her tooth has been fixed by the doctor. What caused his change of heart is never even hinted at yet you know what happened and you know it wasn’t virtuous. This is what Mai and Oscar learn to do or rather what the city forces them to do – work out what must be sacrificed.
Extras: A behind the scenes featurette gives good insight into the low-budget, guerrilla style nature of the film’s production.
Final Words: Sean Ellis succeeds in creating both a sensitive and realistic study of a family’s hardship and an intelligent heist movie. This, the director’s third feature after Cashback (2006) and The Broken (2008), is certainly his best and it will be interesting to see what he does next.
Metro Manila is out on DVD & Blu-ray on 10 March 2014.