‘Neomanila’: Film Review

Filipino director Mikhail Red’s ‘Neomanila,’ about a street orphan’s rite of passage, will make its international premiere at Rotterdam.

“Victims, suspects — they’re all the same,” says a woman who is part of a police-backed death squad in Neomanila. While illustrating how an assassin justifies her line of work, this statement also applies to director Mikhail Red’s representation of the murders sweeping the Philippines in the wake of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.”

Extrajudicial killings, known as “EJK,” have spawned a recent batch of films in the country: Adolfo Alix Jr.’s Dark Is the Night, Arlyn Dela Cruz’s Bubog, Neal Tan’s Adik, Roland M. Sanchez’s EJK. But instead of a victim facing down the barrel of a gun, Neomanila‘s POV is that of the gunslingers themselves. Tracking the relationship between a hitwoman and her teenage protege, the 26-year-old Red’s third feature is a slick, poised, noir-infused thriller that goes well beyond the gritty realism and loud melodrama so common in socially conscious Filipino cinema.

The Bottom Line

A slick thriller about a teenager and a city trapped in the claws of darkness.

Boasting soap opera veteran Eula Valdez’s against-type turn as a deadly assassin, and a nuanced performance by Tim Castillo (the young star of Khavn’s 2010 social satire Mondomanila) as her apprentice, Neomanila made its domestic bow in October at the QCinema Film Festival, where it won a best cinematography prize as well as an audience award. With Red’s pedigree on the festival circuit — both Rekorder (2013) and Birdshot (2016) traveled widely, with the latter winning a prize at Tokyo before becoming the Philippines’ entry for the best foreign-language OscarNeomanila also looks bound for berths beyond its home base, starting with screenings in Rotterdam next week.

Just like Rekorder (about a cameraman who accidentally films a deadly heist) and Birdshot (in which a young girl’s life spins out of control when she inadvertently kills an endangered eagle), Neomanila is also about an individual’s involuntary initiation into a harsh social order. In this case, the central figure is Toto (Castillo), a street kid struggling to bail his older hoodlum brother out of jail. The stakes are raised when he learns that local gangs have taken out a contract on both him and his sibling.

Hunted by both the local mob and its corrupt pals on the police force, Toto is saved from certain death by the rugged Irma (Valdez), whose “pest control” business serves as a front for her real job as a killer-for-hire. A friend of Toto’s late mother from their days as two lowly hawkers of knockoffs, Irma takes Toto under her wing and toughens him up by drilling Toto in the basics of her trade. In return, he seems to tease out some kind of humanity from beneath her cold veneer, and they bond over food, footwear and karaoke in between her lethal assignments.

After his impressive previous work, Red provides further proof of his ability to remain focused as he steers Neomanila‘s characters through very different actions and emotions. For both Irma and Toto, personal survival is always their ultimate goal, and it’s understandable how their warm relationship counts for nothing when their own well-being is at stake — a notion that makes sense of the film’s bloody denouement.

Neomanila is set in a milieu where tenderness and violence coexist, and this delicate balance is illustrated by Red’s tactful use of melodrama (mostly involving the growing rapport between the two protagonists) and even comedy (supporting characters include Raul Morit’s turn as a hen-pecked gun-runner and indie royalty Angeli Bayani’s outing as one of Irma’s whining victims).

Looming over everything is the ominous landscape of the Philippines capital. Red’s title may be a reference to Lino Brocka’s 1975 classic Manila in the Claws of Light, a forceful critique of the endemic social and moral corruption in the city. With Mycko David’s slick camerawork, and production designer Daniel Red’s doom-and-gloom aesthetics, Neomanila offers social commentary that seems more stylized and detached than its past and previous counterparts. But despair and cynicism ooze from nearly every scene: Beneath the genre packaging, the claws of darkness in Manila are shown to have remained the same.

Production companies: Waning Crescent Arts Inc., Pelikula Red, Monoxide Works
Cast: Eula Valdez, Tim Castillo
Director: Mikhail Red
Screenwriters: Mikhail Red, Rae Red, Zig Dulay
Producers: Nicole Runi, Sara Santiago
Executive producers: Katrine C. Ponce Enrile, Sally Ponce Enrile, E.A. Rocha, Fernando Ortigas
Director of photography: Mycko David
Production designer: Daniel Red
Music: Paul Sigua, Myka Magsaysay
Editors: Jeffrey Loreno, Mikhail Red
In Filipino and English
101 minutes