Though Christopher Nolan remains one of contemporary Hollywood’s biggest tonal influences, no one has really tried to directly imitate his mismatched puzzle piece style. Enter Metro Manila, a Philippines-set trouble-in-the-big-city movie that continually betrays the director’s influence in its visual style, editing, and structure. Written, directed, and shot by glossy British photographer-turned-filmmaker Sean Ellis (Cashback), the movie is a catalogue of Nolanisms translated into Tagalog and executed on a tight budget.
The enigmatic opening shot—the silhouette of a man, seen through billowing purple fabric and accompanied by instructive narration—comes straight from The Prestige; the parallel story of airplane hijacker Alfred Santos (JM Rodriguez), which is related in pieces, works like the story of Sammy Jankis in Memento, minus the twist ending; the achronological intercutting recalls countless climactic scenes in Nolan’s body of work. Even Ellis’ lens-geek camerawork—full of fist-sized bokeh, horizontal flares, and smothery shallow depth-of-field—resembles a digitally slicked variation on the style of longtime Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister.
Nolan’s style tends to create movies that are fun to watch, even if they make less and less sense—psychologically, ideologically, spatially—the more a viewer thinks about them. The problem with Metro Manila, though, is that it isn’t a Christopher Nolan movie; it’s a Sean Ellis movie. Both Cashback—which was expanded from an Oscar-nominated short—and Ellis’ sophomore feature, the horror movie The Broken, suggested that the filmmaker could only come up with 40 minutes of material, and filled the rest of the running time with generic filler.
This is equally true of this film, which spends its first 75 minutes as a very conventional drama about a couple named Oscar (Jake Macapagal) and Mai (Althea Vega), who move from the countryside to Manila, find themselves struggling to get by, and are forced to endure various humiliations. It’s only in the final 40 minutes that Metro Manila turns into the scuzzy, crackerjack, find-the-MacGuffin crime movie one presumes Ellis set out to make.
Of course, there’s a narrative purpose to those first two-thirds: to immerse the viewer in the world Oscar and Mai inhabit, and to provide an emotional context for Oscar’s behavior in Metro Manila’s closing act. The problem is that Ellis leans so heavily on urban degradation clichés that the movie registers as arch and inauthentic, even to a viewer who doesn’t know the milieu. One typical sequence intercuts shots of Oscar boozing and crying with slow-motion footage of Mai, who has taken a job as a bar girl, gyrating in a seedy nightclub; meanwhile, twinkly, willowy piano-and-strings music plays on the soundtrack. The only truly effective moments in this first, long stretch of the movie involve Oscar, who has been hired by an armored truck company, interacting with his new partner, the philandering, classical-music-loving Ong (John Arcilla). Not coincidentally, these are the scenes that set up the movie’s twisty final third.