Britain’s nominee as Best Foreign Language Film for the Oscars features an all-Filipino cast and a story that traces the sacrifices and hopes of an impoverished family from the countryside that tries its luck in the dark and squalid ghettos of the Philippine capital Manila.
Metro Manila, written and directed by Briton Sean Ellis, is one of three foreign language films nominated in the best foreign language category for next year’s Oscars which delves into the lives of Filipinos.
The Philippines’ nominee Transit focuses on the struggles of migrant Filipino workers in Israel, while Singapore’s entry Ilo Ilo is about a Filipino nanny who works for a Singaporean family.
The US film academy will select the finalists in January ahead of the Oscar ceremony on March 2.
“I thought it was a very beautiful and poetic story about family and about sacrifice and about hope,” Ellis said of his movie, which won an audience award at the recent Sundance Film Festival. The movie premiered in Manila last week and opens in Philippine cinemas on Wednesday.
It tells of the journey of farmer and former soldier Oscar Ramirez, played by veteran stage actor Jake Macapagal, and his young family from the rice terraces in the rural north of the country to the chaos of Manila to seek a better life.
In the city, they fall prey to various characters and are forced out of desperation to make difficult choices. Oscar’s wife, Mai, played by film actress Althea Vega, is forced to become a bar girl to feed her two young children.
Oscar manages to land a job as a driver for an armored truck company and is befriended by Ong, his senior officer. Ong — played by John Arcilla — is helpful and jolly, but it becomes clear he had been waiting for someone naive and trusting like Oscar to come along.
Ellis said the story was inspired by a scene he witnessed while visiting the Philippines. Two employees of an armored truck company, in bulletproof jackets and helmets, and lugging M16 rifles, were screaming at each other. It ended with one of them kicking the truck before they both got in and drove off.
He said the scene remained with him when he returned to Britain and he kept on wondering what they were arguing about. That led him to develop a 20-page synopsis. He then flew to Los Angeles to flesh out the script with his friend Frank E. Flowers.
The script was in English, but Ellis allowed the actors to translate their lines into Tagalog.
Ellis said it was strange to direct a movie in a language he could not understand, but for only “about five seconds, because then you start to see the performance and you’re not worried about the words they’re saying, you trust them to say the words that are in the script.”
Macapagal, 47, who spent a decade in Europe working in the musical stage production Miss Saigon, said the role was “challenging but not very far from every Filipino’s plight.” Macapagal said he could easily relate to Oscar’s life because he does not come from a privileged background.
Manila’s dark side has been explored in several films by Filipino directors, including the classic 1975 film Manila, in the Claws of Light by the late award-winning director Lino Brocka, and more recently by noted director Brillante Mendoza.
“There’s a texture in our city that we don’t normally see because there are times we numb ourselves to the poverty,” Macapagal said, adding Ellis “looks at things you don’t normally look at.”