A drama about the modern migratory experience in the Philippines, the UK produced, Indonesian set Metro Manila – from Oscar nominated short filmmaker Sean Ellis – isn’t a terrible film, but rather a well meaning and somewhat inert one that ultimately doesn’t have much to say for itself. It’s made with a lot of craft and dedication, and in the moment it feels like it has a lot to say about how major metropolises can chew up and spit out the very people they should be welcoming, but it takes far too long to get going, has multiple stories that it can’t quite reconcile, and ultimately leaves no real lasting impact.
Frustrated by the fact that his family can’t survive in a rural Northern community on the piddly wages they earn from toiling in the rice paddies, Oscar Ramirez (Jake Macpagal) brings his wife and children to Manila with hopes of greater opportunities and a chance at a better life. They start out literally living in the streets, quickly learning that the people who have already established themselves in the city have little empathy or compassion for outsiders. While his pregnant wife (Althea Vega) looks after the kids and takes a job in a sleazy strip club, Oscar lands a job with an armoured car service thanks to his military background.
For a little while, Metro Manila feels scattershot in a way that feels like it’s building towards something greater. Ellis’ points about those hovering just barely above and below the poverty line who are forced into catering to the whims of the wealthy and well to do are always on point. Once Oscar starts getting his training at the hands of a wizened veteran guard (John Arcilla, the film’s MVP) and the world they live in gets fully established. Watching the fear of their job combined with the contempt for those who live large makes for an interesting counterpoint to the earlier scenes of living in impoverished squalor. Similarly, the scenes where Vega has to endure emotional humiliation in exchange for money and a place to keep her children safe, are tastefully handled. Ellis pulls no punches when it comes to saying how much their jobs suck, but with Vega’s storyline, he also thankfully doesn’t feel the need to exploit already marginalized workers.
It starts to click about an hour into the film, just at the point when it becomes apparent that Oscar and his wife will have to sacrifice a lot of their personal ideals if they want to survive and provide. A scene where they couple feels exuberance towards getting their first place is a lovely and understated scene. The film could use more of that emotion, however, since after this point the mother’s storyline gets lost almost entirely as Ellis just decides to cobble together a mostly illogical heist plot out of the film’s back half.
Without giving away the twist, nothing about the film’s sudden decision to get Oscar involved in robbing his employer makes a lot of sense. It involves handfuls of convenient plotting, a highly illogical scenario, and a MacGuffin that technologically shouldn’t exist (i.e. the money comes in heavily fortified boxes with numerous security details, but apparently without GPS tracking). It essentially abandons everything that could have made it special in favour of an admittedly well staged (if somewhat sleazy) climax that rings hollow. It’s admirable that the film becomes about a family that needs to escape the city instead of staying there, but I’m positive there had to be a less grandiose way of doing it. It kills a lot of good will the film built up while establishing its characters.
The collapse isn’t surprising, though. Perhaps it would have been more forgivable if Ellis didn’t decide to keep reminding the audience of every minor detail they would have to remember during the climax every several minutes and populating his film with on-the-nose speeches about the haves and the have nots. By the end it comes across as an idea that’s coming from a good place, yet still has a degree of contempt for its audience that results in hand-holding and leading them through something Ellis thinks they can’t handle.
At least the film’s big twist isn’t the one Ellis constantly makes the audience think it will be. That’s a nice surprise, but the rest of the film is exactly what you would expect it to be.