‘Metro Manila‘ is the story of a good man in a bad world. All elements in the movie seems to stem from that core principle and the only question left for the story to answer is if a good man can remain good when all odds are piled against him. And, except for the unconditional love of a family, I really mean all odds. Right off the bat, Oscar Ramirez (Jake Macapagal), an ex-military turned farmer, is forced by the severe rural economic crisis to sell all his few belongings and start anew with his family in the fascinating and colorful chaos of Manila, a gritty and chaotic megalopolis where dreams seems to be forged. Unfortunately, as soon he will discover, the city specializes in bad dreams. The relentless, unmerciful, dog-eat-dog pulse of the streets beats the hope out of the Ramirez family bit by bit, bite by bite, until there’s so little to lose for them that they can’t even afford to be scared anymore.
Then, a sudden lucky break. Sudden, unconnected to Oscar’s actions or even virtues, pure chance; as well as the Ramirez family did nothing to deserve so much misery, the world throws at them, in an equally senseless manner, a chance to progress, maybe even rest a little. But that’s not what this story is all about: This is the story of a good man in a bad world, and neither side of the equation is up to be changed. And that, if anything, is the thing that upset me the most about ‘Metro Manila’; the sense of utter subordination to the environment whims, the lack of effective free will, which is the basis of moral action, ultimately.
And that spirit of the deep themes is almost the only thing I can complain about, because in every other aspect (especially in the technical departments) the film is beautifully made. The western gaze of Sean Ellis upon an almost hysterical city like central Manila ensures a sense of wonder and dread at the same time. Mister Ellis know how to rescue the minutia that maybe a local director, used to it, would overlook, from the mere visual dimension to the societal games that follows the same rules as everywhere else (unforgiving competition driven by omnipresent scarcity) but with a distinct cultural viewpoint. In ‘Metro Manila‘, the photography is gorgeous, the musical score is sophisticated and to the point, editing is unapologetic and academical at the same time, all the cast does a terrific job (including a powerful John Arcilla and a gentle Althea Vega) and script points are cleverly deployed (except for an allegorical sub-story narrated by flashbacks scattered all over the film in a too ‘how-convenient’ way) in a tension crescendo that pulls you from an apparent socially critical start to a philosophically gloomy, transcendental thriller.
But, despite all the unquestionable know-how poured in this eye-catching piece, a story with no-choice amounts to an almost non-story. Choices are, ultimately, what sends out the message of a story, the moral of the fable, if you wish, because they are what connects what we perceive as what makes us free to the consequences of that same freedom. Of course, at the far end of it, everyone is ultimately free: our hero could do what he does or anything else, including nothing at all, so anything that he does is an expression of that liberty. OK, that maybe true in a deep, ideal conception of freedom, but no one lives in a vacuum. And storytellers know (at least, good ones do) how to populate that void around the character, how to design a sequence of events that render an action inevitable for a specific kind of person. A good man, in our case. A good man in a bad world. “He had no chance”… if he’s going to remain good, that is. And that is, precisely, again, the only question left to answer when the end of the movie approaches. Just one, right at the end, with no room for subtleties, for gray tones… almost no room, even, for doubt.
Maybe that’s exactly the sensation director Sean Ellis wanted to instill in the audience with his almost lustful ‘Metro Manila’; a fatalist sense of a microscopic chance to choose, a world of limits only barely touched by great sacrifice, a way to understand the extremes that hopelessness imposes. Well, mission accomplished. But… I don’t know how useful that viewpoint is, how can it leave the audience with something more than before they see the film, instead of taking from them a chunk of hope alongside the ticket price. I don’t even argue if “that’s the way the world is” or not, and I in fact applaud the effectiveness of the powerful picture Ellis draws; my concern is not the ‘what’, nor even the ‘why’, but the ‘what for’, if you know what I mean.
You don’t need a Disney-homologated standard happy ending to tell your audience that they matter, that they can do something more than just react in the narrow limits of an aggressive world. In fact, happy endings can be as dis-empowering as the sad ones, if not even more. But ‘Metro Manila’ gave me neither relief nor hope, and I’d surely preferred all that beauty to be used to make me want to engage in life, instead of hiding from it. In spite of all, it’s good to look at the shadow from time to time as well, and see what we recognize in it, because we can recognize only that we already have, in some way or another. In that sense, if a movie can help you figure out what you don’t want, then you took something from it, too. At least, as long as you don’t understand the story as a spyglass, but a looking-glass.