‘Neomanila’ review: Mikhail Red blurs the lines of innocence and guilt

If you’re brave enough to be left on a bleak and desolate state, Mikhail Red’s ‘Neomanila’ might just be your form of awakening.

I’ve been meaning to see Neomanila since it first debuted in QCinema back in 2017 – the year when President Duterte’s “tokhang”/war on drugs operations are at a peak heat of discussion. The film, getting a commercial release two years late in the game, remains to be a relevant body of work despite how the subject matter of extrajudicial killing has already been desensitized by media. As opposed to other recent EJK-themed films like Adolf Alix’s Dark is the Night and Erik Matti’s BuyBust, Mikhail Red’s NeoManila focuses on the perspective of a hitman – their motivations, drive and aspirations – this is much closer to Matti’s On The Job. But make no mistake, the film clearly does not ask for your sympathy, but rather your empathy at the very least.

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By now, it should not be a surprise that a film bearing the word “Manila” in its title will be set to a backdrop of crime, corruption and poverty. True enough, Neomanila treads on a familiar ground – the criminal activities presented are built around the unpleasant headlines we have all grown accustomed to. But what makes the film refreshing is its gritty technical style and execution. Basked in neon lights, the film’s interpretation of the ‘New Manila’ is a breathing underbelly of mercenaries and addicts. It’s harrowing and suffocating, yet strangely inviting and even seductive to stare at. The film is a slow burn thriller to a fault – it lulls in its moments of mundanity and flimsy subplots, but whenever tension is needed the most, its reliable and commendable cinematography, editing and musical scoring are always there to escalate things.

Manila by night. (L-R): Raul (Rocky Salumbides), Irma (Eula Valdes) and Toto (Timothy Castillo).

This is the type of film that won’t pull its punches. A case in point is already made in its first few minutes as a police-backed assassin Irma (Eula Valdes) casually guns down a drug-dealer and efficiently retreats back to her tandem/lover Raul’s (Rocky Salumbides) motorcycle for escape. We are served with a cold, calculating killer for a ‘protagonist.’ Irma runs a pest-control business by day and dispatches druggies by night (a glaring wink at symbolism). In an understated performance, Valdes sufficiently carries the weight of the film with her deglamorized features and world weary expressions. But before we feel completely alienated to the character, the film sets her to a maternal role towards a homeless orphan Toto (Timothy Castillo) who’ll do whatever it takes to raise money for his brother’s bail.

And so she places him under her wing and starts teaching him the basics of the trade to earn a cut from her earnings. What we witness next is a teenage boy who is on the cusp of losing his innocence. Toto adeptly reflects the horrors of the uninitiated demographic. There’s still room for improvement in Castillo’s portrayal but for the most part, his deer in the headlights expression should work.

Making of an assassin. Irma (Valdes) teaches Toto (Castillo) how to shoot in ‘Neomanila.’

The two develop an emotional attachment as they bond over food, footwear and karaoke. While the resulting relationship does not come out as poignant as the film intends it to be, the film is able to give a false sense of hope in preparation for a gut-punching blindside. By the time the film arrives to its 11th hour twist, the weight of it falls on a last minute character reveal that we have zero connection to. It’s a tough pill to swallow but it’s quite logical for Irma’s arc. Initially viewed as a hired killer who does the deed for the buck, the film completes her psychological puzzle with a major drive that has been hinted along the way. With this deliberate misdirection in mind, the film’s intellectual aspect ultimately overpowers its emotional intentions.

If nothing else, Neomanila is still a fine addition to Red’s filmmaking proficiency. Just like his previous work in Birdshot, the story operates on a multidimensional level – a part thriller, part crime procedural, and part character study. The camerawork is well thought and the set pieces are well-designed, all of which complement Red’s assured vision. He makes questionable choices along the way – like the gratuitous underage sex scenes that feel unnecessary in the bigger picture, but he makes sures that he fully owns them. Also, there’s a terrific scene with Angeli Bayani that I can’t discuss much because of its spoilery nature. This film is intent on upsetting its viewers with today’s reality the moment they exit the theaters. So frustrate you, it most likely will.

The film’s framework is best summarized by a character’s line: “Victim or suspect… they’re all the same.” The blurred lines of innocence and guilt among its characters makes a strong and compelling case – these are just labels that vary depending on whose perspective your looking at. That being said, the film is at its strongest when viewed as a tool for social commentary rather than as a conscientious tale of character study. Neomanila’s gamble does not fully pay off but its valiant effort should be commended.

3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Mikhail Red and written by Mikhail Red, Rae Red and Zig Dulay, ‘Neomanila’ stars Eula Valdes, Timothy Castillo, Rocky Salumbides, Jess Mendoza, Ross Pesigan, Angeline Andoy, and Angeli Bayani. Run time: 101 minutes.

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