Metro Manila review: world cinema writ small
One of the most enrapturing experiences I’ve had at the movies in 2013: fiercely, grandly humanist, and almost unbearably tragic.
I’m “biast” (pro):
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Perhaps the best movies of all are the ones from which you have no expectations whatsoever and end up staggering out of them two hours later feeling like you’ve been kicked in the gut, they’re that affecting. That’s what happened to me with Metro Manila, one of the most enrapturing experiences I’ve had at the movies in 2013, and with so little preparation.
Everything about this movie is unexpected. I knew nothing going in, beyond what the title suggests, which isn’t much. (Damn, I didn’t even know anything about the city of Manila, though Wikipedia has now fleshed out my knowledge a tad.) What I learned: The film is mostly in the Tagalog language, with just a bit of dialogue in English, and is set in — and was shot in — the titular Filipino city. Yet this is an independent British film, from writer-director Sean Ellis, which is completely fascinating to me: we talk about “world cinema,” but this is a wholly different sort of expression of it, where a filmmaker from one side of the world visits the other side of the world and is so inspired that he simply must make a film there. (I’m not Filipino, obviously, but there doesn’t seem to be any hint of colonial condescension or white-man’s-burden about the movie.) (Ha! It seems the phrase “white man’s burden” actually springs from Western reaction to Western colonization of the Philippines. Another thing I did not know. Thanks again, Wikipedia!)
The story Ellis tells is specific, in some ways — how Manila, apparently the most densely populated city in the world, crosses world-city and third-world boundaries from street to street, is part of what we see here, the most abject, favela-like slums sitting next to unimaginable riches — and universal, in others: the film has already been snapped up by Hollywood for a big-budget remake, which could work well as long as it retains the aching heart and soul this original has. (I’m not hopeful, but we’ll see.) The story crosses genres, from drama to thriller to something else entirely, and becomes its own sort of everyday tragedy that, I suspect, most of us can empathize with in these economically desperate days, even if we’re not quite as bad off as Oscar and Mai Ramirez.
The Ramirezes, see, are an agonizingly sweet couple — I fell madly in love with them, and with actors Jake Macapagal and Althea Vega, and if you don’t, I just don’t know what to say to you about that — who can no longer make a living as rice farmers, and so they decide to head to Manila with their two small children to see if they can find work. They cannot catch a break, it seems, in the big city: they are cheated left and right; she falls pregnant again; their desperation gets ever more desperate. They’re not quite innocents abroad — Oscar has served in the army, for one, which cannot ever be anything other than an eye-opener — but rather endlessly hopeful, in a way that feels relentlessly, deliberately optimistic rather than ignorantly naive. And then Oscar catches a job with a security firm that ferries money around in armored cars for rich people, and Mai gets work in a bar where rich men pay to look at pretty girls, and these are signs that things are looking up…
There is something fiercely, grandly humanist about Oscar and Mai’s story, and about how Ellis chooses to tell it. These are people whose lives are nothing but commodities to their “betters,” cannon fodder to greed and desire, yet they remain ferociously themselves, their own individual selves, even to the point of exerting their humanity to their own detriment. They pay an exorbitant price for refusing to dehumanize themselves, as so many others around them have, in the name of “getting ahead.” Oscar and Mai exist in a world – the same world we all exist in — in which there’s no such thing as something for nothing… but in which there is a choice to be made about what one gives in exchange for the something that is needed, even if many other people don’t seem to see that this is the case.
What left me feeling as if I’d been kicked in the gut by the end of Metro Manila is not only how very high that price is, but how very necessary it was. It feels almost Dickensian. Or Shakespearean. Which makes it very British after all.