The theme of rural poverty that brings the innocent to the big city to alleviate their lot and which results in their exploitation and cruel treatment is now a hackneyed theme for fiction, film, soap opera, song or dance. To use it, originality and imagination is needed. It must be handled with a reality that makes it believable and competent. Otherwise, the poor in the big city theme can be a mine field.
Metro Manila, the acclaimed movie (for being nominated in the foreign film competition for the Academy Awards and for being shown in the Sundance festival) has just walked into the minefield and the detonations are visible and annoying.
There are the details that are not correct which alerts one to what exactly is the truth in what is being said and shown in this film.
Example, Banaue is not a province but a town in the province of Ifugao but the first title says Banaue Province. In Banaue when one hails a transportation jeep along the road, that jeep does not take you all the way to Metro Manila. At most to the next few towns.
Furthermore, while Metro Manila can be an unfeeling, cruel city, its downtrodden, poverty-stricken migrants are not constantly yelled at, pushed around every which way and cheated in all instances. Please go to a slum, a crowded public place like a market or a hospital and see that people treat each other with no special malice.
Who uses a coin-operated telephone in this city where everyone has access to a mobile telephone even if one has to borrow, rent or steal it? It is hardly believable that a migrant would have such sangfroid as to use a telephone to apply for a “position” as he does through a pay phone considering his lack of self-confidence in a new and puzzling environment, with vintage user-unfriendly public phones. And that he would try to cut the line as an applicant as he does, may be possible but most improbable.
And that is what distracts in this movie, the improbable is always possible 100 percent of the time. Is it realistic to see a security guard with a roof garden in the heart of Makati even if it is just a nondescript building? Is it believable that this security guard plays music in his armored car while on duty and that the music is Western opera? And that he takes the armored car somewhere near the airport where they can do target practice with an armalite?
Are there silk factories in this country so competitive that one owner is killed off leaving his son desperate enough to hold up a plane and then jump out using a homemade “silk” parachute? There are no silk factories here. There are some ateliers that make silk, but they are not factories, few and far between as they are. Of course, there is the true story of the addled person who did hold up a plane, jump from it with a homemade parachute but it is a stretch to link this bizarre behavior to the security guard who tries to hold on to his principles and then like an avalanche they fall away from him with no precipitating event that can be defined, noted or understood. Suddenly, he is a criminal. Is that the message, that there is a criminal in all of us waiting to get out?
I am afraid that this British script is just that, a British script translated into Pilipino with no balance, no thoughtfulness just a voyeuristic fascination by what is seen as the poverty in our lives, the bizarreness that it precipitates in our behavior, the judgment that our universe is not redeemable. And that is what infuriates, the heavy-handed and pornographic treatment of poverty, the depiction of a Third World hell and its hellish characters that bring down each other from enforced drinking sessions (repetitive, lengthy, boring), to sliding into the sex industry without a struggle (a highlander woman needing work in a big city would first think of what she knows what to do—laundry, domestic chores, babysitting). But our heroine becomes a bar girl without a second thought. Furthermore, when she does not bring in enough drinks and is about to be fired, the demonic woman owner suggests that some clients could be interested in her 10-year-old daughter. So, of course pedophilia must be added to the list of our circles of hell. What could be missing? We have cheating, exploitation, bribery, drinking, philandering, sex for sale, murder, robbery, drugs. Oh yes, there is a scene where a kitten is tortured. It is very simplistic, very trite, this is the pornography of poverty. It is meant for foreign audiences who do not know any better but imagine the worst in our Third World. And they want to see it. Metro Manila offers it in a silver platter.
The actors did their best, but the script needs serious re-working. The music in this context is bizarre, a British film convention from the days of Sunday Bloody Sunday et. al. I enjoy opera but here it is totally inappropriate for the time, the place and the characters. Yes, everything is possible but not everything is probable. Let us have a fair shake, some depth and truthful treatment of the way we are.