Sean Ellis (CASHBACK, THE BROKEN) is the latest British director to shoot a low-budget thriller in South East Asia and make his name in the process. Unlike Gareth Evans, who set his police siege martial arts action flick, THE RAID, in Indonesia, propelling Iko Uwais to stardom, Ellis headed to the Philippines to make METRO MANILA, the story of a tenant farmer, Oscar Ramirez (Jake Macapagal) who is unable to buy seed. He decides to take his family to Manila to find work. There profiteering middlemen who gave Oscar a low price for his rice crop – two cents a pound rather than ten as in the previous year – are replaced by con men who offer Oscar a place to stay in accommodation that turns out to be a squat and a friendly woman in Manila’s slums who through a referral turns Oscar’s wife into an exotic dancer and club hostess, easy prey for groping tourists; she has to make a quota of getting her customers to buy her at least twenty drinks a night to make a wage. There is child care at ‘Charlie’s’, but it borders on setting up her nine year old daughter for child prostitution. To re-write the APOCALYPSE NOW line and The Clash song, ‘Charlie [the madam] don’t mind’.
Oscar catches one unlucky break, working for a day shifting rubble, paid only with food, for a lucky one when he uses a coin he finds in his Jeepney [a private bus converted from a US army jeep which is the main source of travel across country in the absence of trains] to answer an advertisement for security guards. Although not a former police officer, Oscar’s infantry experience – and 9th Spear tattoo – gets him a job for Manila Armoured Guards. The work is one of the most dangerous in the capital. Drivers pick up their consignments and transport them from points A to B at fear of hold up. ‘There are plenty of robberies’, his partner Ong (John Arcilla) tells him, ‘especially around election time.’ ‘Why is that?’ Oscar asks. Ong laughs. ‘Politicians need money – and they rarely have it themselves. It is not as if they know someone who has won the lottery. Do you know someone who has won the lottery?’ Ong underlines the remote possibility of such a dream. ‘What people need is hope. That’s what you give them.’ Hope is also what allows people to be manipulated.
So we are in a pretty cynical environment. This is the driver for setting films in the developing world. It is a shortcut for a film director to say, ‘people will do anything to survive, pushed into a corner, because there is no liberal hand-up, no welfare state, no fair trade and no dignity’.
Ellis has denied that his film is political. He’s right. His film does not offer an empowering view of the poor struggling to survive. The villains are Asian gangland thugs, sadistic torturers looking for revenge, young kids wearing bandannas. Ong, who lost his previous partner in a robbery, trains Oscar to shoot a machine gun (‘no earplugs, so you get used to the sound’) eat during his lunch break – Oscar’s instinct is to save his cooked chicken wrap for his wife and two children – and to drink. After a Tuesday night out with Ong and the other drivers, which Ellis cross-cuts with his wife’s gruelling first night at work in which she appears to be raped, or at least mistreated, Ong decides he has no stomach for alcohol. What he cannot stand is imagining he can blot out his reality.
Macapagal became the star of METRO MANILA by accident. A respected theatre actor, he got involved in pre-production helping Ellis cast other roles. As Macapagal read Oscar’s part whilst actresses were screen-tested, Ellis’ producer sent text messages to him under the table convincing him that he was right for the role. Macapagal was taken aback but accepted.
Part of the appeal of making a film in the developing world is that if you want a big backdrop, like the Black Nazareth religious festival featured in one scene, when Oscar and his family first arrive, you don’t need a huge crew. Ellis, his Director of Photography and a colleague used Canon 5D EOS HD DSLR digital cameras (which look like stills cameras) to film the festivities, which featured many men tugged a blackened statue through the streets. Ellis didn’t look like a filmmaker doing so, more a tourist. So when his actors passed by the parade, they looked to all intents real people, Macapagal not having the recognition factor.
His co-star, Arcilla on the other hand is far more well-known. His scenes – or some set pieces in the movie – drew crowds of up to 2,000 onlookers (Ellis’ estimate) who were happy to be corralled from one side of the street to the other when Ellis needed to change the angle. They even enthusiastically picked up on Ellis’ call ‘one more’ for a re-take. ‘One more, one more’, they would chorus in English not Tagalog.
METRO MANILA is a twisty thriller with a plot that draws its hero into an impossible situation. At two points, Oscar tells the story of a similar man, the son of a silk factory owner driven out of business by a rival, who decides to rob passengers on an airplane. The killing of this character’s father features in the blink-and-you’ll-miss it opening. The mysterious figure of a man standing in front of a sheet staring – it seems – at the sunlight over the opening credits also draws you in.
Before Evans and Ellis there was Edwards, Gareth Edwards, who made his low-budget science fiction road movie, MONSTERS, in South America. Edwards can be said to be the father of the trend and the most high-profile success story, though his big-budget remake of GODZILLA is still in pre-production after several years – not a good sign. It is possible to deduce a trend. If your surname begins with ‘E’ and you don’t want to make a film in your native Blighty, why not pick any of the countries on OECD’s DAC (Development Assistance) list, with minimal funding – some cash but less than you’ll think you need – and rely on heaps of good will. You might make a splash at Sundance – or Sundance London where I saw the film, and caught Ellis’ Q and A – and inspire a bidding war. As for the impoverished stars of your movie, the jury is out whether there is a trickle-down effect. METRO MANILA does not make you want to visit the city any time soon, so it does even less for the Philippines Tourism trade than Imelda Marcos’ Shoe Museum.