I had to double check when I read it, but could this Sundance award-winning, BAFTA nominated, Oscar long-listed project really stem from the same Sean Ellis that made Cashback?
Well seemingly, that is the case, though you would be hard-pressed to believe it at first glance. Cashback, whilst being just as considered, is far more what you’d expect of a young insomniac from Brighton. Metro Manila is something else entirely, a thought-provoking comment on our times that few can truly appreciate through western eyes, being littered and embittered with their own first world problems.
The critics at Filmfest Hamburg honoured the film, suggesting; “the themes of our times are what define this film: rural exodus and impoverishment, exploitation and poverty in the Moloch of overcrowded metropolises.” And whilst this is true to an extent, what makes this film a success over mere political and sociological comment, is Ellis’ ability to personalise this very real struggle, drilling drown into the lives that are affected by our own lack of consideration for some, highlighting the inability and/or ignorance of a cold, dispassionate world to what has become a reality for voiceless millions.
Ellis chooses to concentrate firmly on one family, as a definitive foghorn for the extenuating issues at hand. The family in question, Oscar and Mai Ramirez and their two young children are introduced to the audience as rural and simple crop farmers, situated in the rice plains of the Banaue Province in the Phillipines. Suffering severely reduced revenues from their crop yields, they find little option but to travel to Metro Manila, the country’s cultural and financial hubbub, to seek work, as the money they have will not be enough to buy seeds for the next season on the plains.
And so the aformentioned (and apparently inevitable) rural exodus begins. The family pack their meagre belongings into a few makeshift holdalls and head for the nearest (yellow brick?) road, in order to get a ride to what they believe will be their Emerald City.
Of course, they are completely oblivious to what most of those that have been to or live in Manila already know; that the late Alec Guinness would probably turn up on TripAdvisor suggesting that the scum and villainy of this wretched hive here puts Mos Eisley to shame.
By the time you’re less than half an hour in, you are already completely ensconced in the plight of Oscar and Mai, having the feeling that you have walked at least a mile in their shoes already and your own heart will sink at every twist of fate that befalls this honest family who want nothing more radical than a place to live simply, work hard and raise a family.
But fate has other plans. Things begin to get really desperate. No home, no money, childhood toothache and a growing feeling of pointlessness coupled with an unfortunate realisation of their own naivety, their plight calls for drastic measures. Mai obtains work in a bar where her main role is to keep the customers happy, hard and spending. Oscar lucks into a job working for a security firm, charged with moving their clients’ money from one to another around Manila, in an armoured truck. As armed robberies are commonplace, this is no picnic, but compared to some alternatives, it is well paid. Taken under the wing of his new partner, Ong (John Arcilla), Oscar does well and it seems, for a while at least, that things may just turn out alright in the end.
And you really want this story to end well. Throughout its running time, Ellis does a great job of imprinting these characters onto their audience. They are indentifiable in spirit, if not in deed or place, and you will find yourself thanking your lucky stars that you only have your foolish trivialities to ruin your day, such is the lot of life handed to these characters and millions just like them.
The acting is outstanding, as is the cinematography. Ellis’ direction is thankfully practical and workmanlike, capturing images that often coddle the viewer in a world completely foreign to many watching, making it just comfortable enough to sit through, without appearing too alien to invest in. This is all the more surprising as this is written and filmed in a language Ellis has no understanding of. A simple story with an especially impressive final act, this is Ellis’ best work so far, and by some margin. Highly recommended not only for lovers of world cinema, but all cinema.