A man moves to Manila, capital of the Philippines, looking for a better life, but encounters challenges along the way that test his moral limits. That, give or take a few details, is the basic setup not only of Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila, but also of Lino Brocka’s 1975 classic Manila in the Claws of Light, which was recently restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation and which easily shows up Ellis’s panoply of crime-drama clichés and overall touristic gaze.
Manila, with its looming neon signs that scream modernization and first-world influence, is the dream city that lures the protagonists of both films to buy into illusions of economic self-improvement, only to smash those fantasies in often brutal fashion. Metro Manila’s Oscar Ramirez (Jake Macapagal), like Julio in Manila in the Claws of Light, starts out his journey as a naïf, only to quickly pick up on the difficulties of supporting himself sans money in this unforgiving metropolis. Long-term goals sustain both men through the many rough moments though—providing for his wife and two children in Oscar’s case, and finding a long-lost love in Julio’s. And while the specifics of their individual experiences are different, in the end both of these downtrodden and increasingly desperate protagonists are forced to face up to an inner violent streak that threatens to lead them to cross the line into full-on destructive behavior.
The first hour of Ellis’s film is built out of off-the-shelf parts from many previous immigrant narratives (Gregory Nava’s 1983 film El Norte comes immediately to mind), suggesting that he doesn’t so much understand Filipino society as merely sees it as grist for standard genre fare, perhaps hoping that the foreign setting will somehow automatically make the clichés feel fresh. Manila in the Claws of Light, by comparison, doesn’t stick to a familiar narrative playbook, as Brocka isn’t afraid to stray from Julio’s central goal in order to touch on different subcultures and emotional temperatures within this lower-class milieu. There’s a sense of genuine curiosity on Brocka’s part about his characters and the society in which they live that’s in precious little supply in Metro Manila, what with its generally predictable plot turns and utterly conventional moralizing (in Ellis’s film, even Oscar’s drunken night out on the town is intercut with his wife’s stripping, as if to tiresomely suggest the inherent sin of both their behaviors).
Metro Manila is admittedly accomplished as a piece of storytelling, with Ellis showing a talent for using cinema’s visual and aural possibilities to evoke visceral impressions and in-the-moment mental states, and the thorny moral issues it evokes in its second hour do carry some genuine emotional weight, as Oscar is frequently put in a position of testing his moral boundaries for the sake of surviving and providing for his family. But Julio’s situation and the depths he’s forced to go in Manila in the Claws of Light aren’t so different from Oscar’s, and in the end it’s Brocka’s film that carries the more devastating impact. Whereas Ellis feels a need to introduce some risible last-minute twists to end the film on an ostensibly mind-blowing note, all Brocka needs is a freeze frame and a dissolve to suggest oceans of moral ambiguity in true gut-punch fashion.