METRO MANILA is a Tagalog-language social drama cum crime thriller from UK-based writer and director Sean Ellis. Filmed on location in Manila, it follows Oscar (Jake Macapagal), Mai (Althea Vega) and their two young daughters as they try to make a better life for themselves after leaving the provincial north for financial reasons.
Upon arriving in the city, Oscar and Mai quickly find themselves being scammed out of what little money they have, hungry and squatting in the slums. But finally Oscar gets a driving job, and his boss and co-driver Ong (John Arcilla) buys him lunch and a new shirt, and takes him to a bar for ‘boys’ night’.
Things then quickly take a different shape for Oscar and his struggling family. “After all I’ve done for you?” Ong asks Oscar. If there’s a crueller way to back someone into a corner in ten words or fewer, I don’t want to hear it. And neither does Oscar, who meekly accepts that he’s swapped rice fields and silk factories for Kevlar helmets and automatic rifles.
Good, honest people moving from the provinces to the big bad city for a new life that proves less than shiny isn’t a new trope, but it’s one that Ellis manages to refresh, in part through his use of location. Manila is a sprawling metropolis that separates shiny neon prosperity from grimy backstreets where cars pluck girls from the side of the road. It’s certainly more visually exciting and exotic than the Sainsbury’s we saw in Ellis’s debut, CASHBACK (2006).
METRO MANILA is an intense moral tale, as Oscar and Mai seem inherently good, just trying to make life better for themselves and their children. Their desperation is raw and ever-present, and what drives the film is the need to find out how far Oscar and Mai can be pushed, and to show us where their breaking points are. Their resolute hope comes from necessity rather than naivety.
The result is a tense, emotional thriller, with strong, believable performances and a concise, well-executed plot. I was on the edge of my seat.