Friday, January 25, 2013

Sundance ’13: Metro Manila

The blue Kevlar helmets issued by a Filipino armored car company identify their drivers as targets just as much as they provide protection.  It is dangerous work, but it is the best opportunity for one desperate economic migrant.  However, he finds himself in the midst of a risky game in British filmmaker Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

Exploited as rice farmers in the rural north, Oscar Ramirez and his family pull up stakes to seek work in Manila.  Unfortunately, they fall victim to a series of cruel scams as soon as they get off the bus.  With no other options, his wife reluctantly takes “hostess” work at a sex bar.  Just as things look truly hopeless, Ramirez lands a job with an armored car company, thanks to his military background and some timely coaching from his prospective partner, Ong.

The veteran Ong definitely knows how to game the system, but he also seems to take an interest in Ramirez.  After a few days on the job though, it becomes clear the senior driver has a suspicious agenda, involving the recent hold-up that claimed the life of his previous partner.

Metro’s first act is unremittingly grim and naturalistic.  Watching the Ramirez family’s suffer one indignity after another is tough going.  Frankly, Ellis maintains the grim tone throughout, but really cranks up the tension as the crime drama takes shape.  This is a smart, taut story, but like Ron Morales’ Graceland, Metro portrays Manila as a relentlessly corrupt and predatory metropolis (which some might raise some eyebrows coming from a Brit like Ellis).  In a pointed case in point, the armored car company is just as likely to make deliveries for drug dealers and legitimate banks.  That is where the money is.

Jake Macapagal is very good as Ramirez, the Filipino Job, completely guileless but stretched to his breaking point.  Nonetheless, John Arcilla constantly upstages him as Ong with his charismatically garrulous villainy.  While completely convincing as a middle-aged ex-cop, he has an electric screen presence that largely pulls viewers through all the teeming misery and inequity miring the characters.

Metro fits a whole lot of plot into about a week’s worth of time.  In fact, all the events transpire before Ramirez’s first payday—an important fact to keep in mind, given certain decisions he make.  Dark and gritty as anything screening this week in Utah, Metro will not be to all tastes, but it is a surprisingly powerful combination of class conscious social drama and the caper movie.  Highly recommended for fans of Filipino cinema and verite-ish crime-in-the-streets films, Metro Manila screens again tonight (1/25) and tomorrow (1/26) in Park City as part of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.