Sean Ellis’ Filipino drama Metro Manila (2013) took home the Best British Independent Film award at the BIFAs last December, although you’d be forgiven for not recognising its homegrown credentials. Set in a foreign capital, with dialogue primarily in Tagalog (which the director doesn’t speak), it may be a far cry from a kitchen sink drama, but demonstrates the success a number of British filmmakers – including Gareth Evans, director of The Raid (2011) and The Raid 2: Berandal (2014) – are achieving with a wider canvas in locales where budgets stretch further. Ellis brought small crews onto the city streets, telling the story of a desperate, destitute family starting over.
As soon as Oscar (Jake Macapagal) and his family step off the bus, they’re immediately in awe of this strange new world, whilst Ellis puts us right in the middle of the poverty-stricken Filipino metropolis. At every turn they’re blighted by hardened locals willing to exploit them, as their dreams of a better life become their prison. Macapagal is coolly understated as the naive farmer who finds himself accepting a job as an armoured vehicle driver, one of the most dangerous roles in the city. There he’s in the line of fire of gangs and mobsters, but he mostly finds himself troubled by his bosses and the corrupt individuals for whom he transports money. While he handles large sums of cash, his wife (Althea Vega) is forced into prostitution.
Ellis’ gritty realisation of Manila’s mean streets certainly won’t have won him many friends over on the Filipino tourist board. The British director shows the city with a similar eye – but a harsher gleam – to that of Michael Mann’s LA in Heat (1995). Also winning is supporting actor John Arcilla as Oscar’s lively mentor, Ong, whose honest cop heart has been rotted away by the lack of prospects in the hopelessly downtrodden capital. That’s not to say that Ellis’ eye is purely trained on thrills. The director of Cashback (2006), a far less ambitious work, is refreshingly more daring here. What begins as a socially aware, artful rags-to-riches tale is a different beast by its finale; half-The Asphalt Jungle (1950), half-Memento (2000), with a twist that’s somehow both unexpected and unequivocally satisfying.