Director: Sean Ellis
Writers: Sean Ellis, Frank E. Flowers
Stars: Jake Macapagal, John Arcilla, Althea Vega
Every so often a low budget British film comes along which manages to confound expectations; they get decent reviews, but at the same time critics hold back on their praise because these are not films made in the Mike Leigh / Ken Loach / retro kitchen sink tradition. They are broadly realist, but they mix these elements with generic or popular narrative. And they’re normally given a limited run and gain a small but loyal following before disappearing onto video. Over the last few years there has been Eden Lake, Shifty, Monsters, Kill List, The Liability… films which are frankly far better and more interesting than the more mainstream productions which soak up the awards nominations and plaudits. To put it bluntly: would you rather watch The Raid or The King’s Speech? It’s like comparing Assault On Precinct 13 and On Golden Pond.
As with The Raid, Metro Manila is set in a foreign country (in this case the Philippines) and it’s a brilliant mix of crime film and neo-realism. the story follows a poor farmer Oscar (Jake Macapagal) who moves to Manila after his crops fail and ends up stuck in a slum while his wife is forced to seek work in a squalid lap dancing club. Desperate for work, he takes a job as a security guard on the armored vehicles used to transport huge wads of cash between the banks and the super-rich. It’s apparently impossible to steal any of the cash being carried due to the complex system of unique keys used to open them, but his veteran partner Ong (John Arcilla) has a plan to conduct a daring robbery, and he gives Oscar little option but to join forces with him.
Made for a tiny budget (something like £250k) and shot guerilla style, this is an amazingly effective work. The first half is pretty depressing, painting a picture of a city (and country) which is harsh and inhumane; a documentary style portrayal of an honest man’s unstoppable descent into poverty. The second half concentrates more on the thriller elements and and is exciting and compulsive. Although the performances are strong throughout, the plaudits really lie with Sean Ellis, who wrote, directed, produced, was the cinematographer and raised the money for the film by re-mortgaging his house. I was one of the few people who rated his previous film, the slightly hokey but good looking horror flick The Broken, but this is a serious step up in terms of quality. Highly recommended.