NeomanilaReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/13/18 11:37:30
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I wonder just how this crime flick plays in its native country, where the sort of vigilante killing at the center is a Thing That Happens rather than something as far outside the norm as it seems in North America. Is it just piercing rather than shocking? Or is it even that - maybe it feels like a well-made thriller that contains nothing that an observant person wouldn't expect.Things center around Toto (Timothy Castillo), who may still be a kid, but who doesn't have the luxury of being an innocent any more than anyone else in the slums of Manila. He smuggles a razor to his brother Kiko in jail, and runs errands for gangster Ringgo, although he also goes to church, if only to meet girlfriend Gina (Angeline Andoy). Recently orphaned, he is taken in by Irma (Eula Valdez), a one-time friend of his mothers, who has a small pest-control business, and it's not just four/six/eight-legged nuisances she exterminates: She and partner Raul (Rocky Salumbides) are freelance killers given missions by a man they refer to only as "Sarge", and their newest target is Dugo (Jess Mendoza), the next man up from Kiko and Ringgo. Toto can get them closer and, indeed, wants to help, although he doesn't realize just who this new surrogate family has killed in the past.
There's not much light to be found in Neomanila; the whole city seems run-down and oppressive, the sort of place where the sun only comes out to remind people that they can't afford air conditioning, and it's easy to despair because there is no escape from the gangs and violence. Director Mikhail Red and his co-writers make sure that criminality infiltrates every facet of these characters' lives, with Irma's pest-control shop only briefly more than an ironic front for her other activities. Even Gina, who initially looks like she could be the good part of Toto's life, being pimped out (something revealed so casually that one can't really even be surprised for more than a second or two). It's the sort of environment where extrajudicial killings naturally arise because even if the police are clean, it's almost impossible to conceive of any institution not being tainted, or there being any other framework that functions.
It's not a healthy way to grow up or live, and an even worse way to grow up. You can see that in the faces of almost everybody involved; there's an air of resignation that seems to hang over nearly everybody that Toto meets, although the gangsters tend a bit toward paranoia. It hasn't quite completely set in for Toto yet, but Timothy Castillo is able to show it making inroads in muted responses and unfocused bitterness, chipping away at his natural instinct to trust . He's not beat, yet, but he's having trouble figuring out how not to be.
Irma seems like she's found a way to fight back, but it's possible that she's the most defeated of all; she may hate the dealers and be committed to destroying them, but she's using there methods and has grown skilled and hard enough to do so without a lot of seeming effort and remorse. When Toto enters her life, she pulls him deeper in rather than seeing him as a reason to get out, and there's something almost religious about how she has embraced the contradictions of her vigilante activities. Eula Valdez builds this nicely; she's called upon to be nondescript rather than flashy when in action, but have a sort of magnetism that draws Toto and the audience in. It's easy to go through the movie focused on the tough woman working to take her city back (and it's not as if that part of the character exists only on the surface), but she's always doing a little more than just being tired or worn down.
Those not looking to break Neomanila down into a commentary on extrajudicial killings in the Philippines will find a well-made modern noir regardless. Director Mikhail Red and co-writers Zig Madamba Dulay & Rae Red build their criminal organizations out just enough for them to feel powerful but not so much that the audience has to hold a lot in their head at any given time. The filmmakers prefer to set the scene with images rather than exposition, and they've got good instincts for how to use betrayal, inexperience, and violence to keep things moving. The standout action beat involves a grenade in a private jail, but throughout they develop sequences that draw their thrills from things getting out of hand without devolving entirely into chaos."Neomanila" is at times brutal enough to raise eyebrows, but it's sharp as can be, setting up its loose-seeming but tight in actuality plot, filling it with memorable side characters, and playing its violence completely straight rather than making it a release. It's good enough crime to be a fine genre film and smart enough to be a bit more.
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