Dirs. Adolfo Alix Jr, Raya Martin Philippines. 2009. 90 mins.
Two directors, one lead actor and two unevenly matched tales paint a picture of Filipino city life high and low in Manila. The film is jointly directed by young guns Raya Martin and Adolfo Alix, and is in completely different mode to the former’s entry in Un Certain Regard this year, the hyper-stylised Independencia. Moody black-and-white realism, with a dash of genre thriller, mainly serves to show as much varied city life as possible, some of it raw and evocative. But a drippy star, narrative unevenness and general lack of purposefulness hamper the film. International exposure prospects look faint.
The film is partly a vehicle for Filipino actor/singer/heartthrob Piolo Pascual, who plays the lead in two different, but thematically related tales. In both he figures as a rather bland presence, hunky at best. In the first story, directed by Martin, he is William, a young drug addict who goes on the run in Manila after a police bust. Mooching around the city, William tries to score drugs from a rock band, is given the brush-off by his girlfriend, and ends up back in the massage parlour where he began, high on smack again.
Meanwhile his mother Charito (Roces), who runs a restaurant – although she also appears to have, or have had, brothel connections – searches high and low for her boy. On the way, she runs into an amusingly garrulous pal, and hangs out with her entourage of gays and transsexuals. Roces is a strong presence, as are some of the oddball supporting players, and this section is memorable for supplying many incidental glimpses of Manila street life by day and night, fabulously shot by Albert Banzon in black and white that variously evokes early new wave lensing and film noir chiaroscuro. The opening sequence of the story, introducing key characters in single shots, and laying on the nocturnal mood, is the best thing in the whole film.
Unexpected opening credits some 30 minutes in (shades of Apichatpong Weerasethakul) are set to colour footage of director Lav Diaz busy shooting a film at night. Then the film reverts to black and white for Alix’s story, a far more conventional, predictable and leisurely yarn. This time Pascual, in unconvincing dark make-up, plays Philip, son of a poor family, who works as bodyguard to Barry (Manalo), a spoilt-brat rich kid with political aspirations. Stopping to pick up Barry’s actress girlfriend Amy (de Rossi), with whom he has been secretly dallying, Philip accompanies his boss to a club, then is forced to stand up for Barry in a gang fight that ends badly. Dropped like a hot potato by his boss, the hapless Philip takes refuge in one of Manila’s enormous rubbish tips that are home for the extremely poor - thus allowing the film to end on a polemical, semi-documentary note that is in keeping with the film-makers’ declared models here, socially-conscious Filipino film-makers Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal.
The credits, in fact, decline to state which director worked on which film, and the overall presence of DoP Banzon – the film’s prime asset – makes Manila very much of a piece. Even the visually striking, loose travelogue flavour of Martin’s superior episode, however, fails to raise the whole piece above the ordinary. Ultimately, Manila fails to push the envelope.
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