The “squad” part of death squad would imply a sizable number of goons, but the demand for extrajudicial killings (EJK) in the Philippines is so high, it has spawned a cottage industry of small, self-starting assassination teams. In fact, business is so brisk for Irma and her partner, they take on a pseudo-apprentice in Mikhail Red’s Neomanila (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.
Toto was trying to raise bail for his brother Kiko, but rival gang-members and their crooked cop allies got to him first. Alone in the world, he is taken in by Irma, who runs a two-man hit squad out of her rat-infested exterminator store (yes, ironies abound). Her partner is Raul, who is also a somewhat ambiguous lover, but there is no question the mysterious “Sarge” is the boss.
In between hits, Irma and Toto quickly develop a surrogate mother and son relationship. The young street kid is also eager to contribute to the business, which Raul tolerates and maybe even respects. Nevertheless, life remains perilous in Metro Manila, especially for those operating on the extreme margins.
Probably the cleverest and most inventive film addressing the EJK phenomenon remains Dean Colin Marcial’s super-charged short film Manila Death Squad, but Neomanila definitely makes an impression—and its point. It is a lot like the pre-Duterte death squad film Clash, but with greater thriller elements. One thing is for sure, it makes the city look absolutely terrifying.
Soap Opera star Eula Valdez is terrific as Irma. She makes her ruthlessly Darwinistic behavior absolutely believable, even when we are totally shocked by her actions. Likewise, the already quite accomplished Timothy Castillo looks and acts like a real-life street tough as the shockingly young, but ever so jaded Toto. Frankly, nobody looks like they are acting in Neomanila, which is quite impressive (and more than a bit disturbing), especially since there are a number of well-established thesps in supporting roles.
No doubt about it, this is dark and bracing cinema. It is also impressive filmmaking, which is never depressing to watch. Highly recommended, Neomanila screens Thursday evening (7/5) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.