Despite accolades from the likes of Sundance and BIFA, Sean Ellis’ second feature is a rather turgid affair, trudging slowly and with little incident through life in the slums of Metro Manila.
Directed by Sean Ellis / Written by Sean Ellis & Frank E. Flowers / Starring Jake Macapagal, John Arcilla, Althea Vega / Cinematography by Sean Ellis / Music by Robin Foster / Production by Chocolate Frog Films
I first heard about Metro Manila when I was lucky enough to meet its editor, Richard Mettler, whilst working on a car commercial in China. After some reading I was hugely excited to see what could well be another in a recent spate of notable South East Asian films made by Western directors.
Oscar (Jake Macapagal) is a farmer seeking work and a home for his small family in Metro Manila, and almost certain to slide into inescapable poverty, until he is lucky enough to be plucked for a job as an armoured card driver. As Oscar’s life begins to turn around the positive momentum of his new job is soured by his wife’s (Althea Vega) work in a girly bar and endangered by the machinations of his partner, Ong (John Arcilla).
Ellis has assembled a fine local cast, acting entirely in Tagalog, and both Macapagal and Arcilla lend magnetic, conflicting traits to their characters that make much of a script that plays up its double meanings and implied consipiracies. The third most important character, it could be argued, is the city itself – a brutal megatropolis that spits out one handful of families as it chews up the ones behind them. But Ellis, who does seem to have a sense for the city, conveys the atmosphere of the place artlessly and his Metro Manila has little personality compared with Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Richard Linklater’s Paris or Vienna, Fernando Mereilles’ Rio de Janeiro or Wong Kar Wai’s Hong Kong. I don’t think it’s unfair to compare anyone to such greats of cinema and their finest achievements because any filmmaker shooting, essentially, a city symphony (or sinfonietta, in this case) must aim to put that city on the map in one way or another. Ellis doesn’t tell a particularly sophisticated visual story and his handling of his two lead actors seems to be geared more towards the needs of any given scene and disrupts the cogency of each character as a whole. Couple these elements with a drawn-out short story and it becomes clear that Ellis (who was also his own cinematographer) bears complete responsibility for squandering his own strong ideas on a bland final product. Speaking at the Filipino premiere in Metro Manila, John Arcilla described Ellis as a “one man band.” Perhaps an orchestra is what this film really needed.
I was a little torn between grading this film as “Worth a Look” or just “So-so” but, in the end, I’m going with the less flattering grade because I wasn’t able to get over how let down I was by Metro Manila. It was over-hyped after winning awards at Sundance and from the British Independent Film Association. It was also the UK submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (though it did not receive a nomination).
Ultimately, Ellis had two really solid stories that lent themselves perfectly to the environment of Manila. On the one hand there was a neat, well-plotted heist thriller, which could have led to some fine action and great suspense. On the other hand, Ellis commited fully to telling a tale of desperation and portraying the various indignities in the lives of people backed into a corner with no chance of escape from a jungle-like system of poverty. But Ellis does not tell either story in a particularly engaging way and I came away thinking more about how a filmmaker with more flair than Ellis might have approached the two narratives of the film. Coming back to the man that recommended it to me, Richard Mettler’s editing is perhaps the most accomplished element of the film, which is by no means faint praise given that the cut must fight against the two deadly sins committed by the script: being dull when nothing is happening and being predictable when something is happening.