Friday, January 2, 2015


[A version of this review appears in the Portland observer, here:]

I saw "Metro Manila" back in February at the Portland International Film Festival and was so blown away by it that I hoped, against hope, that this taut and carefully constructed tale of a Filipino family trying to survive the harsh realities of life in Manila might actually get a U.S. theatrical release, though the commercial prospects for a tale in Tagalog seemed doubtful. My hopes failed to materialize, but the film is now available on Netflix and iTunes and Amazon, and I'm determined that everyone should see it. It's one of the best films I saw in 2014.

You wouldn't necessarily get that from the film's marketing or from reading the reviews. It's marketed as an urban thriller, and that is the focus of the praise it has garnered (which is less than it deserves, in my view). The latter part of the film does indeed turn into an intricately plotted, life-and-death crime story, but the film derives its power from the human story at its center, a story that many critics seem to have dismissed as pedestrian.

Its protagonists are Oscar and Mai, a loving couple with two small daughters who have been eking out a living farming rice in a remote province. When the economics of rice farming become untenable, they quite reasonably decide to move to Manila to find work. They are used to hard work, and both are strong, smart, and determined. But nothing can prepare them for the harshness of life in the city, and the cruelty of the people and circumstances they will encounter there.

There is nothing clichéd about the film's depiction of the couple's circumstances; we are hardly swimming in movies that sink deeply into the harsh realities of life in places like this. The film shows us what kind of people Oscar and Mai are and what fuels their choices. We see how they work together, how they respond to setbacks, how they attend to the needs of their daughters. Their love for each other is simple and specific.

They are duped out of most of their meager savings almost immediately upon arrival in Manila. It is clear that their naïveté is born of lack of experience; no one would expect the harshness of what they encounter. Mai is forced to take a job in a go-go bar, her loveliness her only marketable asset in this place. She stolidly submits to the reality of a situation that she clearly finds repugnant; though Oscar takes it as a mark of his own failure to provide, she tells him, simply, "Sometimes the only thing left to hold onto is the blade of a knife."

After not getting paid for a day of honest manual labor, Oscar appears to luck into a more lucrative and dangerous opportunity: he takes a job driving an armored car through the streets of a city whose extremes of wealth and poverty are far beyond what most Americans can imagine. His seeming benefactor is Ong, who helps him through the application process and takes him on as his partner. But before long the story moves from drama to thriller as the stakes of Oscar's situation escalate, and Oscar soon finds that he must fight past his own revulsion on occasion. Ong, with his fast talk and ready laugh, is Oscar's guide to the ways of this world. His advice to Oscar to "stick your finger down your throat" (mistaking Oscar's despair for physical illness following a night of mandatory hard drinking with his colleagues) feels laden with significance.

I was surprised to learn that the film's director, cinematographer, and screenwriter is a Brit, Sean Ellis, who had never been to the Philippines before visiting with a friend not long before writing the screenplay. He wrote the film in English, and then hired Filipino actors, who translated most of it into Tagalog. It's an interesting and significant choice for the filmmaker to direct the film in a language that he doesn't speak, and it contributes to the sense that the film is sunk into Filipino culture. While that decision may have dimmed the film's commercial prospects, it makes for a much more authentic experience than the usual Hollywood fare.

The choice to shoot in Tagalog also feels more respectful. We in the so-called "first world" don't spend much time thinking about the experiences of people at the margins of our own society, let alone those in parts of the world most harshly affected by globalization and power imbalances. If you added up their numbers, people at the margins far outnumber those whose cultures dominate movie screens and other barometers of attention. This film presents such a visceral look at the realities of life for people like Oscar and Mai that I felt absolutely wrung out after two hours watching it. I also felt a bit ashamed to think of how much stress I experienced merely affording some attention, in the comfort of a movie theater, to experiences that people actually manage to survive, if at all, only at great personal cost.

The filmmaker has made some smart plotting choices that aid reflection on what options really exist for smart and good people like Oscar and Mai. It doesn't seem too much to ask us to reflect on what the stakes truly are for people realistic enough to discern that the survival of everyone they love is not in the cards that life has dealt them.

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