If you're not into niche genre stuff like indie slasher films, Asian action flicks and ridiculously over-the-top monster movies then it's likely that you haven't even heard of the Fantasia Film Festival. For close to three full weeks this international festival descends upon the city of Montreal like a tidal wave of cinematic weirdness. The titles alone speak a thousand words: "Big Ass Spider!," "Zombie Hunter," "Curse of Chucky," "Drug War" etc. So when a movie like Sean Ellis' "Metro Manila" parachutes its way into the program, it almost feels like taking the first breaths of oxygen after a plastic bag's been lifted. Maybe it's the festival widening its range to include the sub-genres of drama, or it could be that they've succumbed to the temptation of premiering the 2013 Sundance Audience Award winner in Canada. Whatever the reason is, bless them for it.
"Metro Manila" zeros in on an impoverished couple, barely surviving as rice farmers in Benguet Province, the northern region of the Philippines where the scenery is as gorgeous as life is harsh. Oscar Ramirez (Jake Macapagal) and his wife Mai (Althea Vega) have two small daughters to take care of. Once they find out that the price for rice has dropped too far to feed a family, they're left with little choice. Together with their meagre belongings, they move to Quezon City in Metro Manila to seek out a means to survive. As the pulsating heart of the Philippines that is the sum of 17 cities, the hustle and bustle of Metro Manila renders the Ramirez family overwhelmed by one of the busiest, grimiest and sweat-induced metropolitan areas in the whole continent. After failing to get paid for doing honest work, getting conned by local shysters and forced into a life of squatting, the light at the end of the tunnel is but a faint flicker for the Ramirez family.
But things start to change. Oscar lands himself an interview to work as part of a security team that delivers highly valuable contents for highly valuable clients and befriends Ong (John Arcila), a senior guard who vouches for him and becomes his partner. Mai also finds a job, more than a touch skewed from decency, and as smooth as you like the story transitions with seamless fluidity from a family drama into a crime film that becomes all the more engrossing as it develops.
There's a reason why "Metro Manila" is barely out the gates and already so well regarded, with a string of positive reviews. Sean Ellis, who acts as his own cinematographer, a producer and even second assistant camera operator (keeping it real) is a rising star in the filmmaking galaxy. It all started with the UK native's 2004 short movie "Cashback" which won a slew of awards before nabbing the Oscar for best live action short. Watch it here and you'll see the imagination, wit, charm and visual poetry that Ellis weaves into the simple setting of a grocery store. Apply that to Quezon City, a family's tale of survival that accelerates without ever becoming out of breath, and the result is a masterfully handled piece of work. With an experienced mind comes an experienced film, and "Metro Manila" sweats experience by the bucket.
There could be a more pragmatic reason behind setting the story in a corner of the world that's often left unnoticed by the rest of the First World film industry, but it only adds to the winning formula. As the title suggests, the city is as much a part of the story as Oscar, whose humble demeanour and incorruptible heart play the perfect foil to the exterior cesspit he finds himself in. Something as simple as saving a chicken sandwich for later turn Oscar into a champion easy to root for, and Macapagal portrays him with just the right amount of subtle endearment. The rest of the supporting cast do their jobs well but not well enough to compare to Arcila, who is something of a revelation as the morally ambiguous, militantly ambitious Ong. The local actors and the city itself, whose ferocious intensity is captured with dazzling energy by Ellis's photography and framing, lure the viewer into its exotic setting and make Oscar's story all the more enticing and memorable.
Walking away from this movie though, after one of the most impressive endings to a film in a long while, there's no denying that the core strength lies in that most essential aspect of the art: storytelling. Utilizing all sorts of devices such as the flashback, the story-within-a-story, non-linear structure, suspense and action as readily as heavy drama or moments of hilarity, and even a montage (that didn't quite do it for us), all of these are textured by Sean Ellis and his co-writer Frank E. Flowers, into a most impressive framework that can only come from an experienced filmmaker. It's drama, it's crime, it's a story of a family's survival against the struggle of life and even though it lacks the blood, gore, zombies and the monsters of the Fantasia Film Festival, "Metro Manila" is a horror story in its own unflinching way. [A-]