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09 October 2013

Sean Ellis’s “Metro Manila” (Review): “Deconstructing the Indictment of a City”

“Metro Manila” is a superb film about the gritty reality in the city that Dan Brown now famously christened as “The Gates of Hell.” Even more enticing, “Metro Manila” is written and directed by a non-Asian foreigner, British Sean Ellis. Obviously, the film is made for foreigners and I think that is one the main reasons that this humble opus is being hailed around the world, from Sundance to London. Period.

“Metro Manila” is a homage or an insult, depending on your point of view, to Lino Brocka’s “Manila, sa Kuko ng Liwanag” (The Claws of Light). Instead of Brocka's protagonist Julio Madiaga chasing his beloved “Ligaya” who went to Manila in search for a better life, in Ellis’s version, Julio and Ligaya are now Oscar and Mai Ramirez respectively. They are now married with children back in the country but their lives are still as dire as life back in 1975.  Facing impending starvation, Oscar and Mai with their children decide to go to Manila to seek better fortune.  However, the city begins to consume husband and wife in no time.

Left: Sean Ellis's perspective on Manila. Right: Lino Brocka's 1975 classic.
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Brocka’s canvas stays within the borders of old Manila while Ellis’s canvas covers the entire metropolis, thus the moniker Manila is excessively limiting.  In using “Metro Manila” as the title, Ellis cleverly declares that the corruption in Manila has infected other cities beyond its borders and the infection continues to grow.  With the film’s simple title, Ellis indicts the entire metropolitan Manila (and the entire Philippines by association) then pulls back and decides to be the diplomatic foreigner. In Ellis’s film, the cordiality that Filipinos once broach to the world is now replaced by the cold predatory nature of city denizens.

Fortunately, Ellis’s version offers moviegoers a respite from the hopelessness in our Third World city ruled by “pretentious elitist false sympathizers” such as me.  Audiences will leave the theater hopeful and guiltless because Ellis was merciful enough to employ the obligatory western fixation on the importance of triumph in the face of overwhelming forces, even if that final justice is delayed.  Erik Matti used the same seed of “hope” in the last scene of “On the Job.”

Ellis’s style is Hollywood and, I dare say, amazingly executed for the palate of Western audience looking for an alternative to the usual films about gritty life in Western cities. Thankfully, after years of being bombarded by Hollywood style narratives, Filipinos’ taste for films has become western as well so everybody wins.

Personally, the failure of the film is that it refuses to go the Brocka way. “Metro Manila” boldly exposes the dearth but it ends with a false promise of hope. Ellis satisfies the audience only in the confines of the theater.  He closes his argument as the credits roll.

In contrast, Brocka ended “Manila, sa Kuko ng Liwanag” with desperation and a question that remains to this day unanswered.

The difference between Brocka and Ellis is the latter does not live here.  Ellis shot scenes; he went home; he exhibited his film internationally; he came back endeared by Filipinos and then he went back to jolly ole England, hopefully with an Oscar nomination as a bonus. Brocka lived and died in Metro Manila. He looked at Metro Manila from the inside as an insider, not an outsider looking inside. 

For all of us who live in the real Metro Manila, Ellis's film is just another poverty porn film with a cup of hot English breakfast tea.

Ellis cinematography is first-rate but many Filipino directors and cinematographers have already photographed Metro Manila in the same way.  Ellis filmic exhibit of the Philippines, complete with the majestic rice terraces, is meant for foreigners only. Native Filipinos certainly will not see new revelations.  Bottom line, “Metro Manila” is just a well-made film that deserves applause but nothing more beyond that.

3.5 / 5
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Foreign directors tacking stories that are very different from their native culture is not new.  A director’s nationality should never be a factor. “Sense and Sensibility” was endearing because Ang Lee understood British sensibilities, and “Brokeback Mountain” is now a classic film because he adeptly and subtly encapsulated America in two hours.  British Sam Mendes also did the same in “American Beauty.”  Ironically, native directors are sometimes the ones in denial of reality as exemplified in many Filipino films. Some Filipino directors simply use poverty as a design template rather than consciously make films to force people to give the cancer of our society a second look. 

As I said before, Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal had already set the standard in film social realism and the activism that must be done away from the director’s chair.  To repeat the same style in the “Age of Selfies” may be ineffective.

Philippine cinema is in dire need of verfremdungseffekt. (1)

Jake Macapagal and Althea Vega delivered good performances but John Arcilla, who played Ong, dominated the film.  His character design is menacingly real to the core.  


(1) Bertolt Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt or “making strange effect” is one useful technique, “to make the familiar strange, to give everyday events the status of something grand or epic. “


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