I’m not going to suggest that I have any idea what it means to be a Filipino national at this point. Lead by a corrupt dictator, who also happens to be somehow one of Donald Trump’s favorite people, the Philippines are currently in the midst of a War on Drugs the likes of which America has never seen. In Mikhail Red’s new film NEOMANILA, he takes us inside the unofficially sanctioned death squads that hunt down drug pushers and kill them. It’s a gritty film that easily brings to mind SICARIO, but manages to be entirely new due to the character setup.
At the opening of the film, Toto (Tim Castillo) is a young street kid just struggling to get by. When his older brother is incarcerated, he does what he can to get bail together, eventually discovering a local gang has taken a contract out on both him and his brother. He is saved from a hopeless future by tough-as-nails contract killer Irma (Eula Valdez). She takes him under her wing and begins to train him us her protege in Duterte’s War on Drugs. The audience is put in the position of having to root for a character conducting what to an American mind is clearly vigilante justice.
There’s a lot to like about NEOMANILA, especially the performances by the two leads. For me personally, it was difficult to get past the moral issue that isn’t quite dealt with in the film. Of course, the characters don’t have the same moral quandaries that I do about what they are doing so it may be a bit unfair for me to judge them according to my own moral compass. That said, I was never really able to fully invest in their story. Past that, the film never really seems to pick up pace. Once Toto is under the tutelage of Irma we just go from contract to contract with very little outside danger or heightening of stakes. The film has a graphic realism to its that places is us right in the middle of the action but it also seems a bit lacking in heart. I never really cared about the characters because I couldn’t really tell if they cared about anything and I couldn’t really tell how they felt about what they were doing. So stylistically it’s a bit like watching a documentary filmed at a distance without any talking head interviews. Also, despite the title and the still, there is nothing at all SciFi or futuristic about this film, which was a little disappointing.
As much as I wanted to like this film, I never quite felt an attachment to the action. Knowing the director is from the Philippines but also the son of a famous Filipino director himself, it is hard to not see the film as a bit of convenient cultural self-appropriation without true understanding. For a film that wants to be inside the minds of these contract killers, it seems hopelessly unable to capture their true nature – as if the director is too far removed from what is going on in the streets to truly tell the story. Of course, with the global notoriety of the story matter, I can easily see why this film is having success on the international circuit. In addition, Red is a known commodity whose work has been selected to represent the Philippines at the Oscars. This film just didn’t quite capture what I think could have been a really important picture of the current reality in his home country.