Metro Manila, as seen through Sean Ellis’ lens

The film “Metro Manila” by British director Sean Ellis had its media screening last August 13. Starring Jake Macapagal and Althea Vega as Oscar and Mai Ramirez, respectively, the movie tells the story of a family who come to the city from the province in search of work and a better life. However, what they find is anything but. Oscar finds a job in an armored truck company but soon comes face to face with the drug culture, while Mai, for lack of any other choice for work, finds a job at a bar as a hooker. Oscar and Mai not only have to deal with the dangers that their jobs pose to them everyday, but with the shady nature of the environment they find themselves in.


I have to admit, I was taken aback by the stoicism of the characters and some of the dialogue used in the movie, because it sounded unnatural. To further elaborate, I use a phrase I often hear when learning a new language: “It’s grammatically correct, but not natively correct.” In other words, it’s not the way the native speakers would phrase their sentences. But I managed to overlook that, and I was curious as to where the story would be taken, and that path that the director would use to get to it.

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It has been described as a crime film or a suspense film. For me, however, it simply tells a story which just happened to have crime and suspense in it. What I was able to appreciate with this film, was that it did not have to resort to excessive use of explosions or blazing action scenes to make its point. Oh yes, there is violence in the movie, but rather than cover up a lack of direction, it moves the story along very well. I also noticed a lot of camera work, perhaps more than what we’re used to when we watch Filipino films.

Sometimes, movie makers are concerned either with making a statement, or being too flashy. I saw none of that with “Metro Manila”. By the end of the movie, I wasn’t necessarily floored or blown away with the movie, but it made me think. The ability to tell a story convincingly and to keep it unpredictable is underrated, and that’s what I think kept me on the edge of my seat with this one.

During the film, what I thought were key underlying themes came to mind:


From the start of the movie, you can see these already. It’s what drove Oscar and his family to leave their comfortable but hardly-earning life in the province. When they get to Manila, their naivete and desperation to find a home as soon as possible had made them easy prey for people offering “cheap housing” which was, in reality, a place in an illegal settlement. It’s what drove Oscar and Mai to jobs that they didn’t necessarily like. They would take anything, no matter how little, to get their family through the day. It’s what drove people like Ong to do what he did, and Oscar just happened to be in the right place at the right time to help him out with it.

Survival at any cost

What’s one of the first things that go out the window when one’s way of life is threatened? One’s sense of right and wrong. We see this first in the character of Ong, the guy who takes in Oscar at the armored car company. Then ultimately, we see it in Oscar himself, who was supposed to be an incorruptible man. When it’s survival at any cost, desperation kicks in, hence the other underlying theme I mentioned above.

I’m not surprised if the average Filipino who would come to see this when it gets released sometime in October would be aghast at how Manila is portrayed. But the truth isn’t always pretty, really. More often than not, and the Philippines is no exception, it takes a fresh set of eyes not influenced by and not partial towards the society that he/she wants to portray, to tell it like it really is. Sean Ellis does that here, and while it’s anything but fancy, it sure left me awed.

[Photo courtesy: RSA Films]

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