For all the images of slum life at its most desperate and violent, Sean Ellis’ Metro Manila is an exploitation movie masquerading as social drama. And to a point, that’s okay. Best known for the glossy, explicit 2004 romantic comedy Cashback, Ellis arrives in the Philippines as a tourist of its seediest elements, and the slick exoticism of his photography recalls the Bangkok of Nicolas Winding Refn’s widely (and unfairly) derided noir Only God Forgives. As much as Ellis tries to immerse himself and the audience in the tragic journey of rural simpletons to the big city, Metro Manila gives off the distinct impression of an outsider looking in, rather than the true grit of native directors like Brillante Mendoza (Kinatay) or even the more austere Lav Diaz (Norte, The End Of History). Instead, Ellis forces the hardships of everyday folk into the type of hyper-violent crime picture that’s regularly piped into theaters in his native Britain. It’s false as social document, often gripping as entertainment.
Opening in the rice fields of a rural province, Metro Manila starts with Oscar Ramirez (Jake Macapagal) and his wife Mai (Althea Vega) getting so little return on their harvest that they can’t even afford the seeds for the following year. Though they have no money and no place to stay, they’re given no choice but to pack up their meager belongings and head into the big city with their two small children in tow. Oscar’s lack of education and work experience limits him to scrambling for menial day labor—one job pays in a sandwich—and a couple of scam artists rob them of every last bill in his wallet. Homeless and desperate, Oscar catches a break when he meets Ong (John Arcilla), a gregarious armored-truck driver who helps him get a well-paying but extremely dangerous job with the truck company. Meanwhile, the attractive Mai gets a job as a bar girl—which is to say, a sex worker.
Ellis piles on the second-act degradation, at one point assembling a Requiem For A Dream-like sequence that cuts between Oscar getting hazed by his new co-workers, who force him to drink himself sick, and Mai doing a sad striptease while their daughter, who appears to be no older than 6 or 7, is off somewhere watching Mai’s wailing infant. (The older daughter has an awful toothache, too, which is oddly more heartbreaking than anything her parents have to face.) Until a criminal scheme finally kicks in, Metro Manila seems all too content to watch these downy innocents compromise their bodies and souls just to stay alive. “Sometimes the only thing left to hold onto is the blade of a knife,” Mai glumly observes.
But the film improves greatly when Ellis drops the miserablist tone and lets the dormant crime picture within take over. Ellis seems much more at home down the stretch, as Metro Manila loses its dicey ambitions to social realism and his technical bravado takes over, leading to shootouts and a heist sequence that plays to his strengths. It also gives more time to Ong, who’s a much more complicated and compelling figure than the native heroes, embodying both the struggle of workaday Filipinos like Oscar and the moral compromises necessary to get ahead. Mai’s analogy about holding onto the edge of a knife suggests Metro Manila, in its best incarnation, could have been an urban Wages Of Fear, with punch-clock desperados forced into taking a dangerous mission. Its ambition to drive-by truth-telling proves to be its undoing.