Metro Manila (2013)
*****Contains plot spoilers*****
I had heard of this film before, so I was pleased to get the chance to watch it, courtesy of Film 4, on TV. We don’t get to see many films from the Philippines over here, and this had received much praise from critics. As a fan of World Cinema generally, I was keen to explore another region, and to see something of an area that I know little about. However, this is as much a British film, as it was directed, co-written, and co-produced by Sean Ellis, who also made ‘Cashback’ (2004).
The story begins in the picturesque region of Banaue, where Oscar and his family are struggling to make a living as tenant rice farmers. Despite the beauty of his surroundings in the famous rice terraces, the crop is failing, and Oscar can make very little money from the poor harvest. He takes the small price he can get, and tells his wife that they must go to the capital, Manila, where they will surely find work, and improve their fortunes. They pack up their meagre belongings, and with their young daughter and small baby take the rickety bus transport to the city, some 250 miles from their home. After an arduous journey, they are dropped off in the bustling metropolis, having no idea what to do, or where to go. Seeing a luxury hotel in the centre, Oscar’s daughter asks, ‘is this where we go when we die?’ To the youngster’s eyes, such a place must surely be Heaven.
At the employment office, Oscar is approached by a stranger. He tells him that he can arrange for him to rent a small flat nearby.The ingenuous farmer is grateful, and they follow the man to a tenement building, where they are offered a filthy room, for almost all the money they have left. Oscar goes back out to find some work. He manages to get a casual labouring job, shifting heavy stones all day, far from the apartment. Meanwhile, the landlord evicts his terrified wife from the place, with the help of corrupt Police, who tell her that it is City property, and she had no right to rent it. After a hard day at work, Oscar is amazed when his pay is shown to be a bag of sandwiches. When he complains, he is told that he is lucky to get them. He saves the food for his family, and begins the long walk home. He arrives to find his wife and children homeless, standing on the street, and they have no alternative but to wander around the city, looking for somewhere to rest.
The film shows the teeming city, choked with traffic, people everywhere. Busy shops, high-rise buildings, all contrasted with the hopelessness of Oscar and his family, wandering aimlessly, true fish out of water. They eventually come across a shanty town, on the banks of a fetid river at the edge of the city limits. A woman tells them about an empty shack nearby, and they decide to move in, despite the appalling conditions. The woman also tells Oscar’s wife, Mai, about the chance to work in a bar, and gives her a card, by way of introduction. When Oscar goes out searching for jobs the next morning, Mai heads off to the bar. There she meets the hard-faced female owner, who tells her the rules. She must encourage the customers to buy drinks, at least 20 drinks a night. She must be nice to them, kiss them, and allow them to fondle her. There will be provocative clothing supplied, hair and make-up done, and a creche supplied for her children, in the form of an old crone who will watch them in a back room of the bar. All of these expenses, including a check by a doctor, will be deducted from her wages. This is a hard scene to watch, as the realisation of the job dawns on the innocent Mai, but she still knows that she will have to accept it, as they are penniless.
Oscar goes off to find work, and joins a queue for a job he has seen advertised, His army tattoos get him an interview, and the kindly supervisor, Ong, decides that he likes this honest farmer, and sends him up to see the boss, with a recommendation. The company deals with armoured car transit of cash boxes, and it is made clear that it is one of the most dangerous jobs in Manila, as robberies happen frequently. The place is like a military stronghold, with heavily armed paramilitary-style guards. Oscar is told to report to work the next day, and even given an advance on his salary, and a new shirt by the supervisor. Things seem to finally be looking up. Mai goes to see the doctor, discovering during the examination that she is pregnant. Later, she starts work at the bar. Paraded for the attention of customers, she is chosen by a westerner, and the man is soon groping her, and forcing himself on her, much to her disgust. Once home, she doesn’t tell Oscar about the pregnancy, or the conditions at her new job. Instead, she is pleased to hear his news about the job, and admires the new shirt.
I could not allow myself to be upbeat at this stage. This story was about betrayal and exploitation. They had been betrayed at the first apartment, by the police, the landlord, and the man who said he would help. Then they had both been exploited at their first jobs. I had a bad feeling that this theme was going to continue, despite the momentary lift in their circumstances.
Ong takes Oscar under his wing. he shows him the ropes. He helps him learn to drive, and gives him dire warnings about the dangers of his new job. Oscar soon discovers from Ong that the company collect cash from anyone. Not only banks and shops, but also drug-dealers and gangsters, anyone who can pay. He also buys him food, takes him to the bar with the lads, and even asks him to his house for dinner. Ong lives in an apartment overlooking the main city centre, and Oscar thinks that he has been very lucky, to meet such a man, a man who seems to have his life sorted, and to be successful. He is even taken into Ong’s confidence, when the supervisor confesses to keeping a mistress, and tells him how upset he was when his last partner was killed during a botched robbery. Later that evening, Oscar is taken to a tiny flat nearby. Ong tells him that he was keeping his girlfriend there, but that Oscar can rent it instead, and move his family in that night. When he collects Mai from the bar, and takes her and the children to the new flat, they can’t believe their luck. Their hopes and aspirations for the new life in Manila are summed up by a simple shower. Running water, in their own home, something wonderful to them.
But betrayal soon rears its ugly head once more. Ong tells Oscar that as he has done so much for him, he must repay the kindness. He has a cash box hidden away, a result of the robbery when his partner was killed. The company believe it to be lost, but it is useless without the key, as the contents will be ruined, if it is forced open. Ong’s plan is to stage a robbery, with the help of some local thugs. This will mean that they are returned to base for a de-brief, and give Oscar the chance to make an impression of the duplicate key to the missing box. But the farmer wants no part of it, and refuses to help. It is then that all is revealed. Ong tells him that he was set-up from the start. Employed because of his naivete and gullibility, and the ease with which he could be manipulated. If he refuses to help, then the company will be told that he has the box, which is secretly concealed in the flat so generously given over by Ong. Facing the harsh reality of his situation, Oscar is dejected, but can see no other option, and agrees to go along with the plan.
At the bar, Mai is called in by the lady owner. She is berated for not getting customers to buy enough drinks, and for being miserable and unfriendly. She is told that she will not be paid anything, as all her earnings have been spent on the clothes, make-up, and seeing the doctor. She is offered a way out, by allowing her nine-year daughter to be sold to ‘special customers.’ In a rage, she rips off her tawdry clothes, and leaves the bar for good. During the staged robbery, Ong is accidentally killed, and Oscar is tasked to take his personal effects to his wife. Far from being upset, the woman tells him that she knows about the box, and offers Oscar sexual favours, in return for a share. He rejects her, and she screams that she will tell the company that he has it. He goes back to the flat and tears up the floor, finding the cash box hidden away. At the same time, the landlord arrives, and tells him that the flat is rented to Ong, and that he and his family must leave the next day. When Mai gets home, she finds her husband close to despair, clutching the cash box, which is useless without the correct key.
The following morning, Oscar goes into work as normal, stopping to buy a religious pendant on the way. He is paired up with JJ, and completes the normal route. Returning to base, he asks JJ to clock off his time card, and the man agrees. Rushing upstairs to the office, he quickly removes the front of the key cabinet, searching for the key to the box he has at home. It is all captured on CCTV though, and soon his boss, and several colleagues, are rushing upstairs to apprehend him. Oscar appears in the hallway, pistol drawn, and a key in his hand. During an exchange of gunfire, he is mortally wounded, and the key is taken off him. The boss immediately sends someone to check on the owner of the box. It turns out to be a drug-dealer, and he has his box at his home, safe and sound. The company assume that Oscar had taken the key hoping to steal the box later, and they send JJ to see Mai and his children, to give her the news of his death, and the few personal possessions he owned.
Mai doesn’t recognise the pendant, and when JJ has gone, she opens it, revealing a wax impression of the real key, the one to the box she has hidden under the floor. On top of the box, Oscar has left her a letter, detailing his intention to stage the crime, and telling her to get the impression made into a key, so that she can open the box, and use the money for a better life for her and the children. He had come to realise that the only way to secure this future, was for him not to be a part of it. He had to die, so that they could have a chance for a decent life. Mai leaves the city, in a better bus this time, clutching the bag of cash from the box, and contemplating her future, with the children by her side.
This is a marvellous film, deserving of a wider audience. Skillfully directed by Ellis, with overhead shots of the sprawling city contrasted by intimate close-ups during the quieter moments. Lighting and editing are also first rate, and the cast deliver nicely nuanced acting that does not rely on bluff and bluster, or telegraphed pathos. The English subtitles seem to convey the essence of the Tagalog dialogue very well, and everyone involved is to be congratulated.
Ultimately, it is a depressing experience, which can hardly be avoided, given the subject matter. It shows a part of the life in Manila, and rural Philippines, but does not seek to suggest that this is the way of life for everyone in that country We know that we are seeing the worst side, both of those who are exploited, and those who are exploiting them.