Wednesday 2 October 2013

Metro Manila (Sean Ellis, UK | Philippines, 2013)

The transformation in form and twist in the tale of Metro Manila – no matter how effective – may tempt us to believe we have encountered betrayal and excess. Oscar, Mai and their children escape the toil of the rice terraces in Benguet province for the big city – and things go from bad to worse. Their exodus is a consequence of a rural mafia controlling, at the sharp-end, the economics of the farmers’ market. Obliged to sell the grown, harvested and husked rice at a reduced rate (now two centavos a pound down from ten the year before) it becomes clear the Ramirez family will not be able to afford seed for the next season. In Manila, the family witness their remaining savings plundered by con-artists, lose their accommodation, and must walk dangerous streets, tipping up in the slum. Oscar is ripped off and abandoned after a day’s work shifting rubble; Mai lands a job as a dancer and hostess at Charlie’s, the children hanging out backstage while mummy grinds down on Euro-detritus with Yankee dollars for G-strings (…‘smile’). Such narration, filmed hand-held in close-up down on the streets, has a social-realist feel. The milieu, revealed through the trials of the family, is proven time and time again as corrupt, as exploitative, as fundamentally uncaring. Yet, as Steve Rose identifies, ‘the tide starts to turn when husband Oscar lands a job with a security-van company, a development that slowly, stealthily leads the story out of social drama territory and into a crime-thriller realm’ (Rose, The Guardian, 19/09/13). We move, in this way, from eternal misery and social-realism to classical-realism and overcoming, toward a narration with gangsters, guns, and a heist, where Oscar’s heroic sacrifice allows Mai and their children to flee Manila with a tasty amount of pesos. And it is such a transformation in form that tempts us to see a betrayal, a turning away from the social-realist political stance which first engendered the story.

Samantha Lay has outlined some of the essential features of social-realism, which always depend upon – it seems – an oppositional relationship with classical-realist structures. For example, while in mainstream cinema ‘the monster is killed, the criminal is caught or gets his or her comeuppance, mistaken identities are unravelled, the romantic couple are united, and so on,’ social realism has ‘something to say about “things as they really are”’ (Lay, 2002:20). Mainstream cinema ‘merely entertain[s]’ creating ‘more or less stable resolutions.’ Social-realism, cannot discover such triumphs in the real world, it ‘resists resolutions and the future is rarely bright’ (Lay, 2002:21). For Sophie Monks Kaufman the transformation in forms in Metro Manila is thus a betrayal, Ellis ‘doesn’t give Mai's plight the screen time to emerge as she (and the social realism her presence represents) is sidelined by the emerging thriller driven by Oscar's job as an armoured truck driver’ (Monks Kaufman, Little White Lies, 2013). Yet perhaps there is another way to look at Metro Manila. The movie begins in social-realist mode, with the family leaving the country for the city, and this mode extends well into the urban environment. Eventually, however, there is a divergence. Oscar’s narration increasing moves into heist movie territory, as Mai and her children continue the social-realist line. Oscar’s sacrifice terminates his trajectory along the classical-realist line. But through his sacrifice, Mai can abandon social-realist suffering, and move toward a classical-realist resolution. Now rich, no longer having to return to Charlie’s, she and the children can escape the city. Metro Manila, in other words, does not simply transform from social-realism into classical-realism, but rather – in the middle section of the film – sets up a discourse between the two forms. It is such a dialogue that we can explore through the Deleuzian cinematic concept of ... the limit of all action-images.

To read the full exploration of Metro Manila through the Deleuze's sign of the 'limit of the action-image ,' see Deleuze's Cinema Books: Three Introductions to the Taxonomy of Images...

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