Sunday, July 11, 2010

AAIFF ’10: Manila Skies

Poverty is a killer, which makes Manila one deadly city. Caught in desperate economic circumstances, one man resorts to an incredibly ill-conceived hijacking. A film “based on a true story,” with an emphasis on the quotation marks, Palme d’Or winning filmmaker Raymond Red shows the audience what led the hijacker to such an extreme act in Manila Skies (trailer here), the opening night selection of the 2010 Asian American International Film Festival.

Raul had a job, but he evidently loses it when requesting time off from his boss. In truth, he probably could have been smarter in how he asks. In need of money to visit his ailing father, Raul wants to apply for better paying work overseas. Of course, in the Philippines, this process involves copious layers of bureaucratic paperwork, which he does not have an aptitude for. Empty-handed and unemployed by the end of the day, Raul is finally vulnerable to his drinking buddies’ dodgy scheme to plunder the office of a shady businessman.

Not criminally minded, Raul finally relents only out of frustration and the cumulative impact of their ringleader Crispin’s unceasing class warfare rhetoric. Needless to say, things do not go according to plan.

Though ostensibly a crime story, Manila clearly follows more in the tradition of socially conscious art films like The Bicycle Thief than action driven fare like Passenger 57. Relentlessly naturalistic, Red revels in the mean conditions Raul endures. However, he is also a bit of a trickster, pulling off some surprisingly effective narrative misdirection.

As Raul, Raul Arellano keeps the audience off-balance with his intense but ambiguous performance. Indeed, he makes it difficult to form a hard and fast judgment on the everyman antihero until nearly the film’s final moments. While only seen briefly during the film’s early scenes in the provincial village of Romblon, veteran Filipino actor Ronnie Lazaro also brings a tragic dignity to the film that effectively sets up the story that follows.

As a country with several active Islamic and Maoist terrorist cells, it seems highly ironic that Manila focuses on such an impotent act of economically motivated terror. Still, it is a well-crafted film that fits together quite cleverly in retrospect. An intriguing and pointed work, Manila should generate a lot of discussion when it opens AAIFF. Recommended for discerning viewers, it screens at the Chelsea Clearview this Thursday (7/15).