Metro Manila (2013) – Denis Villeneuve meets Christopher Nolan

In a manner reminiscent of the films of Christopher Nolan, British director Sean Ellis’ Metro Manila opens with two scenes that appear in quick succession and whose inclusion and significance to the story won’t make sense to the viewer until after the story has passed the 60-min mark. There is a clear logical and emotional connection between these sequences and the main characters’ actions. It’s an interesting way to open a film. If you are not a Christopher Nolan fan, don’t worry because I’m not here to tell you that it is exactly like one of his films. That’s why I’ve mentioned one more director’s name in the byline, Villeneuve’s. It almost resembles the films that he does, with the exception of Roger Deakins. Metro Manila kind of feels like the love child of Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve. This is a gripping, edgy and yet poignant thriller populated with desperate characters whose actions are defined by the desperate and humiliating circumstances that they are put through.

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Oscar Ramirez (Jake Macapagal) is a rice farmer trying to make ends meet in a remote province in the Philippines. As a result of a drop in prices, Oscar is unable to sell his yield for a good sum. With no other solution in front of them, he and his wife along with their two small kids move to the city of Manila to make life better for themselves. Things start to go wrong as soon as they land there. They lose their entire savings when they find out that the place they are staying in has been illegally rented out to them. They are forced to wander the streets and eventually end up finding a place in the slums. Oscar comes across a job advert looking for potential security guards for an armored truck company. A military tattoo on his arm gets him the job immediately and is soon assigned to a senior officer named Ong (John Arcilla) who takes him under his wing. Meanwhile, Oscar’s wife is able to get a job as a dancer at a strip bar. The exuberant and jovial Ong is incredibly nice to him and sees him as a trusted confidante. Ong also lets him know that an officer living in the slums might be seen as a problem by his superiors.

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The married Ong offers to lend him his secret residence that he occasionally uses to entertain his mistress. It’s not until later that Oscar realizes that Ong may be harboring some hidden motivations and that his life is soon about to take an unexpected turn as a result of them. Revealing further would spoil the story so I’m going to stop right here.The twists are quite shocking and increases in intensity as we go further. Sean Ellis doesn’t waste a single minute setting up the story and characters and directs the film with great vigor and passion and this is evident right from the opening frames. The most striking thing about the film is it’s cinematography. Ellis knows where to point the camera and even though some of the scenes don’t last for more than five seconds, he knows how to elicit the right emotions. The performances are uniformly brilliant across the board, especially John Arcilla, whose captivating performance overshadows Jake’s in many key scenes. The film is one of the best of 2013 and it’s a shame that it went largely unnoticed by the general public.

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