Metro Manila initially seems too bad to be true. Oscar (Jake Macapagal) takes his family to the big city to earn money after their buyer back home cuts his price on rice. The Ramirez family come across like the sort of guileless yokels you'd see arriving in the big city in movies from 100 years ago. On their first day Oscar blows their wad paying the first month's rent to some guy who doesn't even own the building. Oscar has a knack for finding work that doesn't pay. One day's work ends with him getting a sandwich for his trouble and getting left behind to find his way home on foot. To help make ends meet and raise money so their eldest daughter can see a dentist, Oscar's wife Mai (Althea Vega) has to go to work as a bar girl. That means letting patrons grope her, or worse, so long as they keep buying drinks. It looks like things can only get worse.
The country and the city
Then Oscar gets a lucky break. He applies for work as a security guard and one of the guards, Ong (John Arcilla) recognizes Oscar as an Army veteran by a tattoo. The military experience surprised me since I'd think it would have left Oscar a more worldly-wise person, but in any event it helps him land a more steady job. Better still, Ong helps Oscar find a decent apartment, since the security company normally won't hire people from the shantytown where the Ramirezes were squatting. Finding a place for Oscar is easy, since it's a place Ong uses for trysts with his mistress. Now things look too good to be true, and of course they are.
Jake Macapagal (left) flinches as John Arcilla fires;
below, Althea Vega is Girl No. 40 (center)
Ong has to want something, doesn't he? In flashbacks, we've learned that he lost a partner during an attempted robbery. The security company transports money in strongboxes that can only be opened with specific keys; otherwise an ink spray will destroy the money inside. It turns out that Ong has kept the strongbox from that incident while reporting it stolen. The key is kept in a special locker in an area of headquarters where drivers like Ong and Oscar don't have access -- unless they're being debriefed after a robbery. Ong's plan is to stage a robbery so that he as the senior partner will have to be debriefed. He expects Oscar to sneak in and steal the needed key from the locker. Oscar understandably balks at the idea until Ong reminds him of everything he's done for him and informs him that the strongbox is in Oscar's new apartment, which Ong rented in Oscar's name in the first place just so he could frame Oscar if the rookie doesn't cooperate.
The best thing about Metro Manila is an element of randomness that emerges when Ong's master plan falls apart almost instantly, leaving Oscar holding the box without any likely access to the locker, since now he has to do the debriefing after the debacle. The worst thing about Metro Mania arguably is how Oscar, otherwise shown as a consistent sap, suddenly proves a tactical mastermind by managing to secure the key and save his family from shame and worse -- by this point Mai is being warned that she can only keep her bar job if she recruits her 9 year old daughter for the amusement of "special" customers. While Oscar pays a high price, his ability to outmaneuver and outwit everyone finally is a little too good to be true. Ellis eats his cake and has it, too, striking a bleak note -- the key to Oscar's success is that he doesn't base his ultimate plan on the "dream" of surviving -- while giving the family an implausible if bittersweet win. Still, in choosing Manila for his setting Ellis makes an admirable stab at social realism, grounding his story at a level of poverty we hardly see in American film, that arguably hardly exists in America. The actors come across well, at least as far as I can tell from listening to their Tagalog dialogue, with Arcilla as Ong clearly the best in class. While Metro Manila is essentially a cliche in exotic dress, its relatively unflinching look at poverty and corruption and its overall craftsmanship still make it worth a look from us.