Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Metro Manila (Sean Ellis)

Jake Macapagal as Oscar Ramirez.

For many years, Philippine cinema has been more than welcome in unabashedly exposing and exploring in equal parts the dark underbelly of the nation's capital. From Lino Brocka's timeless "Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag", Ishmael Bernal's sprawling "Manila by Night", to the more recent "Manila" starring Piolo Pascual in a unique three-character turn, I think it's a bit rational to mention the fact that our local cinema has been utterly shameless in showing Manila's unforgiving side in a harsh, socio-realist light. Films like these are ever-present especially within our local independent film circuit, and we cinephiles oftentimes worship at their figurative feet. But then again, there will come a time, film-wise, when Manila as a cesspool of the impoverished will finally run its course, and honestly, signs of it finally arriving are already very much evident. 

In the opening scenes of "Metro Manila", which is Oscar-nominated director's Sean Ellis' (for the short film "Cashback") riveting take on the titular metropolis' marginalized few, highly suggest that this will be another one of those films whose creators are still in utter awe of the aesthetic wonders of shaky cam and still haven't moved on from Brillante Mendoza's entire body of work. A naïve man from the province who's struggling to make ends meet? There's Jake Macapagal as Oscar Ramirez for you. An equally myopic wife whose travails very much reflect on her face? There's Althea Vega at your service. Now, add up those two with the thematic question of what awaits them in Manila and you already have a potent narrative mix that will sustain 2 hours worth of stale poverty porn. Honestly, with such a run-of-the-mill start, I almost turned away from this one. But thankfully, because of its uncharacteristically smooth cinematography, I was relatively hooked enough that I didn't. As it turned out, the film is really something else.

Oscar Ramirez, as we all know, is a farmer from Banaue who, because of financial woes, tries his luck in the titular metropolis. There, he gets hired as an armored truck driver and is befriended by Ong (John Arcilla), a senior officer and former cop, who slowly teaches him the ways of the trade and initiates him about its perils as well. Like his character in the cult film "Ang Babaeng Putik", Arcilla exudes a certain level of manipulative charisma and jovial artifice that only he could ever muster. One minute, he's a confiding friend, the next, a scheming fiend, and vice versa. Though his screen time in this film is not that much, I personally think that it's enough to warrant him a 'Best Supporting Actor' trophy of any kind. In an ideal world, he should have had numerous nominations and awards for this film. 'Ideal', though, is the keyword, and in this very 'real' one where Vice Ganda gets to beat the likes of Joel Torre and Jake Macapagal for a Best Actor award, there's little to no hope for this personal dream of mine for Mr. Arcilla, so I fully digress.

Moving on, Macapagal is a perfect foil to Arcilla's mercurial intensity. Even though his performance is built around subtlety and his character being of soft-spoken demeanor, Macapagal's task is admittedly trickier because he must make us believe that he is indeed a socially-challenged man who one time even slathered his face with Listerine because he thought it was facial wash. I have nothing against John Arcilla, but his performance, in comparison, looks easier to pull off because he has this inherent, almost contagious energy in him that makes his turn seem like nothing more than a leisurely walk in the park. But regardless, both of them have given exacting performances that neither went over-the-top nor came across as somewhat lazy. With that being said, Macapagal may be easily accused of the latter because of how heavily understated his portrayal of Oscar Ramirez is. But seeing him, a classically-trained theater actor who's obviously more at ease with exaggerated facial expressions and larger-than-life hand gestures and body movements, pull of a crucial character with such quiet grace and poignancy is a feat on its own. Even JM Rodriguez, who I have first seen on TV in "On Air" (oh, the irony), is effectively empathetic as Alfred Santos, a mild-mannered family man-turned-desperate plane hijacker.

Though "Metro Manila" was initially mounted just like any other 'poverty porn' films, not to mention that it borrows elements from Brocka's masterful "Jaguar" and maybe also from "Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim", "Metro Manila" really is an incendiary thriller that merely disguises itself as a social realist film. But then again, the film is so much more than the sum of its two or three plot twists combined that to label it merely as a suspenseful fare is a bit of an injustice. Obviously, director Sean Ellis was never gunning for an explosive style for this film. Instead, what "Metro Manila" is trying to persistently evoke is a sheer feeling of helplessness that consistently sustains itself. In simple terms, the film's slow-burn narrative progression up until its stunning climax can be likened to a catatonic patient who, after hours and hours of merely speaking in tongues, finally utters something of extreme significance. It's an effective emotional ride that will brace you and pierce you through. And with a cast of virtual unknowns except for brilliant character actor John Arcilla (up until now, I am in pain because of how terribly wasted he was in THAT "Bourne" film), "Metro Manila" looks effortlessly authentic, and because the unfamiliar faces far outweigh the familiar ones, its degree of unpredictability, in terms of character swerves, is a tad higher too. This is not the kind of film that casts Michael Rooker as a seemingly harmless ex-husband. It is not.

Bar none one of the very best 2013 films you'll ever see, "Metro Manila" is thrilling in its exposition yet very much lyrical in how it unfolds. But due to its various plot twists and fast-paced sequences, the film initially seems to be more at home with being an action film. But with its layered drama and relatively poetic feel, the film ultimately transcends the thematic limitations of being one to become something that's utterly difficult to categorize. It may not be the most definitive cinematic representation of our beloved capital or even the most original (the first 30 minutes, at least), but it certainly excels as something that perfectly captures the malice fairly apparent in its citizens' every urge and need. This is Lino Brocka by way of Paul Greengrass, and it is sublime.

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