Fantasia 2018 Review: NEOMANILA, A Ripped From The Headlines Neo-Realist Masterpiece
Young street kid Toto is in a very tough spot. His drug dealing brother is in jail, and the local meth pushers think Toto is ratting them out to get the police to secure his release. He spends the few fleeting intimate moments with his girlfriend, while trying to scrape together bail money and figure out who the rat really was. In order to raise some cash, Toto is given a job from an older woman, Irma, who knew his parents before they died. Running a pest control operation during the day, Irma and her partner Raul moonlight as police sponsored assassins, complicit with the State’s war on drugs to murder those involved in illegal trafficking.
Neomanila takes this ripped-from-the-headlines socio political situation — in modern Philippines, state sanctioned murder of drug criminals by hardline President Rodrigo Duterte is practically the law of the land. With shallow lenses and lurid urban lighting, Mikhail Red's (Rekorder, Bird Shot) latest film focuses on the grime and compromises of the lowest level of drug pushing in the densely populated Manila, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
In a highly effective and tone setting opening scene, Irma and Raul efficiently ply their trade in one of those endless sprawling marketplaces which specializes in cheap food and knock off consumer goods. While the deed is done quickly and involves a fleet exit on motorcycle, later, Irma returns to the scene of the crime and lights a candle for the dead. It is here she takes Toto under her wing as a surrogate son, as he thinks the murdered thug was the reason his brother is being warehoused in a cramped cell.
She puts him up at her shop, gives him a mask and a suit for fumigating the infected office towers. She also takes him to her arms dealer, where she purchases throwaway handguns (where grenades are also an option, sold and delivered by another poor family trying to make living) for the evening job. It is not long before Toto is accompanying Irma and Raul on their dirty work, a piecemeal family of paid killers.
Neomanila often feels like a cinéma vérité version of Sicario, only with a restless handheld camera and a focus on the maternal and familial instead rather than big government machinations. Similarities between Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez and Manila are unmissable. Both films even share a delicate narrative device that is best left unsaid, but unquestionably grabs the viewer and shakes them well past any notion of standard popular entertainment. The grim thriller aspects on display here are not for the faint of heart.
The chemistry between veteran actress Eula Valdes (best known for Filipino TV dramas) and young film star Timothy Castillo is subtle and patient. Castillo in particular, I recall as the young kid who carried the lead of wildly different slum set Manila story, Khavn De La Cruz’s caper-doc-musical Mondomanila, seven years ago, and he has matured into a natural and penetrating performer. Irma and Toto share street food, indulge in karaoke, and reminisce about the old neighbourhood before it burned to the ground and Toto’s parents were lost in the fire. She also washes the blood off of him when he is beaten by his brother’s gang, and soon has him practicing with firearms to bring him into her other ‘pest control’ vocation, and possibly a bit of revenge.
For all of its shot in the streets aesthetic (packed with memorable denizens) and languid narrative pace, there is exquisite care put into the story and plot here. Mikhail Red slowly doles out and connects information and theme. Some of the cues may, on paper, sound blunt: Irma’s pest workshop has a rat problem, and when she gives Toto some old wire traps to fix the irony of a pest shop with pests, he ends up snaring and killing an emaciated kitten. Wrapped in the particular style the director (and cinematographer) have created here, it is neatly tucked into the background of many other things happening, there to see, but not overshadowing the characters or the tone; more subtle than the recent work of Martin Scorsese.
The mean-streets do not care about the dramas of the innocent or the guilty, even if it is a custom of the sanctioned killers to put a sign on the dead saying ‘I’m A Pusher,’ or ‘I am an Innocent’ for the police to file the paperworks. At the lowest level of the criminal strata, things are violent and ephemeral. Neomanila effective captures this current moment both visually, and in emotionally, with quietly sophisticated storytelling.
- Mikhail Red
- Angeli Bayani
- Rocky Salumbides
- Eula Valdez
- Timothy Castillo