Last week, The Big Picture Film Festival hosted the Australian premiere of the British-Filipino film Metro Manila, written and directed by Sean Ellis. Metro Manila tells the story of Oscar Ramirez (played by Jake Macapagal), a rice farmer who makes the brave decision to move his family to Manila in the hope of a better life. From the quiet peace in the province, the family is heaped into the sense-saturating bustle of the city.
At first the city seems friendly, and the novelty of it all causes their daughter to contemplate heaven. “In God We Trust” burns in bright neon from the top of an apartment building, consolidating the faith and hope Oscar and Mai (played by Althea Vega) feel about their venture to the city. They find a place to live and Oscar proves his worth to a potential employer.
The uncomfortable reality however soon becomes apparent, as the flat they’ve paid with all their meagre savings on turns out to be a government flat unlawfully rented, and they are forced onto the street and denigrated as squatters. The “boss” pays for a hard days labour in water and bread, exploiting the desperation of the unemployed masses forced to be satisfied with scant rewards. They land up in the slums, and Mai is forced to become an escort in a dodgy strip-joint.
Oscar is persistent, and his history in the infantry and some coercion by a friendly interviewer, lands him a job at an armoured truck company. His interviewer, now trainer, Ong, guides him at each step with unfettered support. We are suspicious of Ong’s excess kindness, and his generousity soon turns out to be self-serving as he forces Oscar into a position where he has no choice but to compromise his values. It is here that the film starts oscillating genres between social critique and crime thriller.
Metro Manila premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, taking home the audience award for Best World Dramatic Film. The film also won best film at the British Independent Film Awards, and was Britain’s offering for the Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards. British director Sean Ellis wrote the script in English, then let his actors translate their lines into Tagalog. Ellis said that, “because I didn’t speak Tagalog, I wasn’t so bothered about line delivery. Instead, I started watching their body language. I found you didn’t really need to know what an actor is saying to know whether it’s truthful or not.”
It is a fascinating approach to filmmaking, and Ellis was right in trusting his actors, Jake Macapagal as Oscar, and Althea Vega as Mai, both give incredibly effortless performances in the film. They’re able to convey so much in an understated drama-less style that perfectly suits the stoic, brave characters they play. The backdrop of the city is dark and dirty, particularly the slums which Oscar and Mai are forced to live in, the image and the sound of buzzing flies so pervades the senses that you can almost smell it.
The film accomplishes a mean feat for a politically minded film; it straddles high stylistic values while engaging us in the character’s travails and in a not-too-obvious way, the social conditions and resultant desperation which force people into ways of living contradictory to their moral values. In a social world where the poor are left to flounder, is it wrong to reset the moral compass in order to survive?
You can see Metro Manila as part of the Big Picture Film Festival this Friday at Events Cinemas in Liverpool. For more about the festival, check out their website at thebigpicture.org.au