When 22 critics on the Rotten Tomatoes, a site of some of the most well regarded and prolific American movie reviewers, unanimously give a foreign film a “Fresh” rating, you can’t help but sit up and notice because this rarely happens.

Imagine being overjoyed by the sight of water coming out of a tap. The sheer delight of Oscar Ramirez (Jake Macapagal) over the simple act of being able to bathe with his wife, has to do with his family being offered a place to stay, after he’s cheated of his money and forced to live in the slums of Metro Manila.

The farmer had earlier moved out of Northern Philippines with his wife, Mai Ramirez (Althea Vega) and 2 young children, as his rice crop could barely feed them.

In this Sundance award-winning (Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic ) movie, the family heads to Metro Manila hoping for a better life. But, as millions in the city’s slums have discovered, the capital doesn’t deliver what Oscar and Mai had expected.

In fact, in the 115 minutes of the film, Oscar and family encounters one too many setbacks and disappointments. Aside from being paid with bread instead of money after a day of hard labor, he was also duped into illegally renting an apartment owned by the government, causing his family to be evicted into the slums.

Mai is forced to work at a bar because of their desperate need for money, Oscar couldn’t prevent her from doing so but there’s no blame game involved, only a mutual understanding between the couple.

Things finally seem to turn for the better when Oscar gets a job driving an armored truck. His partner, Ong (John Arcilla), treats him like a brother by offering him the house to live in. However, it’s not long before Oscar finds out Ong has betrayed his trust. (SPOILER ALERT! A heist is involved!)

Although billed as a crime thriller, Metro Manila is a tearjerker as it reflects a life of extreme and yet not uncommon poverty in the Philippines and how an ordinary couple willingly sacrifice themselves for a chance for their children to survive.

To illustrate this, a particularly memorable part of the film switches between the scenes of Oscar and Mai, when Mai entertains lustful customers in the bar, while Oscar forces himself to drink with fellow drivers, wallowing in his sorrows. It’s a heart wrenching moment that depicts the submission of Mai and Oscar, because of their desperation and great love for their family.

If the plot isn’t already emotional enough, the music will give you a lump in the throat. The accompaniment better frames the different scenes, which by themselves might have failed to garner enough empathy.

To his great credit, Macapagal also convincingly exudes emotion with little and controlled facial expressions, instead of sweeping gestures and the overacting as you’d typically expect of a stage actor. 

On the surface, Metro Manila is about poverty and greed, when at its core it’s about love, which keeps the film from being monopolized by melodrama. Directed by British Sean Ellis (Cashback, The Broken) it’s a surprisingly well-developed film with clear direction, despite Sean’s inability to speak Tagalog.

 Metro Manila is a glimpse into what life’s like in the shoes of people living in a developing country. A well-directed film with commendable acting, it will see you leave the cinema in awe of the superhuman determination Oscar possesses, despite being encumbered with obstacles.

Rating: 4.5/5

Release Date: Sep 26

Runtime: 115 mins

Language: English

Censorship Rating: NC16 (Some Nudity and Coarse Language)

Genre: Action/Crime

Director: Sean Ellis

Main Actors: Jake Macappagal, Althea Vega, John Arcilla


 This article is written by Charmaine Lim.