4 March 2014

DVD Review - Metro Manila (2013)


Genre:
Crime, Drama
Distribution:
Independent
Rating: 15
DVD Release Date:
10th March 2014 (UK)
Director:
Sean Ellis
Cast:
Jake Macapagal, Althea Vega, John Arcilla
Buy:Metro Manila [DVD] or Metro Manila [Blu-ray] [Amazon]


Coming after Thomas Clay’s Soi Cowboy (2008), Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga (2009), and the more recent films of Gareth Edwards (Monsters, 2010) and Gareth Evans (The Raid, 2011), Sean Ellis continues the trend of British filmmakers plying their trade abroad with the Philippines set crime thriller Metro Manila.

Opening on the impoverished rice fields of the north we are introduced to Oscar, Mai, and their two daughters at a point in their lives where there is no option left for them but to sell their rice at a price so low they cannot afford the seed for next year’s crop. With nothing left for them to stay for the family decides to leave this life behind them and they head off to the bustling mega city of Manila.

Once there opportunities seem to fall into their laps as Oscar quickly finds the family a place to live and gains employment as a labourer. But, rather predictably, things aren’t anywhere near as good as they seem as Oscar finishes his first full day of labour to find his payment is a meagre amount of food and some bottled water. To make things worse, he returns home to find his family on the street having been forced to leave their home. The realisation that he was conned out of their life savings by an unscrupulous fake landlord soon hit home. With no money left, the na├»ve family is left with no choice but to move into a shack in the city’s slums.

In archetypal fashion, the female protagonist, Mai, is given the opportunity to help out her family by all-but prostituting herself at a seedy go-go bar. The scenes involving her work there are often too brief and underdeveloped to the extent that the only way to describe them is as objectifying. Ellis tries to defend this objectification by stating the rather obvious point that this is the reality for people like Mai. Now, this statement would be fair enough if he gave the character the screen time needed to explore her plight in a thoughtful and critical way but instead, and in deep contrast to the way Ellis wanted it to be depicted, her situation feels more like an aside for the glorification of female nudity.

Mai’s story is marginalised by the crime thriller story arch that emerges when Oscar finds a job as a security guard at an armoured transport company. But it isn’t just her story that is marginalised at this point. The socially conscious and realistic depictions of the ways in which corruption and exploitation strain the lives of this poor family’s existence get lost in the action when Ellis decides to focus all his attention on the action inherent in the thriller genre. He also moves his films theme away from exploitation and corruption and focuses on Oscar’s desperation. Convention takes over and the film begins its slow spiral toward an uninspired and inevitable ending.

But what riles me most about Metro Manila isn’t the decision to shift the focus of the story away from its social realism beginnings to a more conventional thriller narrative, as I thought it would be. It is the way that the film, by the director’s own admission, dilutes the reality of a life lived in poverty. This dilution is at its most prominent in the depiction of the go-go dancers’ world. Their reality isn’t as light as Ellis would lead us to believe because, as the director states in attempted defence of his representation, the reality is that these girls are prostitutes. He even goes as far as admitting that he diluted their reality to cater to audience expectations. Ultimately, everything fascinating this film initially had to offer is lost in an attempt to progress the plot.

★★½☆☆

Shane James


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