A naive farming couple from the picturesque but impoverished rice-growing region of Banaue, northern Philippines, come to grief in the crime-ridden capital in Brit helmer Sean Ellis’s polished Tagalog-language soap opera-cum-heist pic “Metro Manila.” Overlong, sometimes inventive, and with a self-indulgent tendency to exploit cliche as if it didn’t exist, the pic might be able to parlay its Sundance World Cinema audience award into wider international exposure. French distributor Haut et Court signed on just before the festival screenings.
When their rice harvest fails to bring in a living wage, honest but dirt-poor Oscar Ramirez (Jake Macapagal) and sultry wife Mai (Althea Vega) impetuously decide to seek a better life for themselves and two young daughters in Manila, despite having no contacts or even a place to live. With their motto “In God we trust,” they guilelessly fall prey to the first conman they meet, stripped of their savings, and without a roof over their heads.
While the pregnant Mai finds employment among the bar girls/sex workers at Charlie’s (cue overfamiliar scenes of leering men pawing the teary-eyed new recruit), Oscar happens upon a position as an armored truck driver through the favors of soon-to-be partner Ong (John Arcilla). Ong not only supplies him with a clean shirt and a dirty joke for their department head known as the Laughing Buddha (Moises Mag Isa), but also moves him out of the slum and into a tidy apartment.
Naturally Ong has ulterior motives, namely to involve Oscar in a complicated robbery. But several unexpected plot twists result in the desperate Oscar coming up with a plan of his own.
Although “Metro Manila” reps a departure from Ellis’ earlier charming romantic comedy “Cashback” and psychological horror exercise “The Broken,” it shares with those previous pics an obvious sense of formal craftsmanship. Even though he taps his technique at times to overly showy extent, the flashback scenes of a tense robbery remembered and a heightened rendering of a cautionary tale supply exciting visuals.
Inspired by an incident Ellis witnessed in Manila with two armored truck employees clad in full combat mode having a screaming argument, the screenplay (co-written with Hollywood scribe Frank E. Flowers) boasts the stock characters and situations, sentimentality, foreshadowing and melodrama of soap opera. Yet by cleverly blending these ingredients with those of an action caper, the pic presents a fresher appeal.
Per press notes, the script was in English, with thesps translating their own dialogue into Tagalog. Attractive indie actors Macapagal and Vega play it straight as the relocated couple, while Arcila sweatily hams it up as a complex villain.
Flashy tech work is slick to the point of grandstanding.