Eye For Film >> Movies >> Neomanila (2017) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Down in the squalor of Manila's slums, where neon lights illuminate crumbling homes and crowded marketplaces, homeless children steal for a living and assassins ply their trade, people have learned to get by on dreams. The glittering towers to which everyone is encouraged to aspire are too unrealistic - a few miles away, they might as well be in another universe. Toto (Timothy Castillo) dreams of getting his brother out of jail. Irma (Eula Valdez) dreams of being able to invest emotionally in something beyond her own survival.
Attempting to protect his brother has put Toto's survival in jeopardy. Forced to betray his gang, he has now been marked to death. The sentence would be carried out quickly were it not for Irma's arrival. Once a friend of Toto's deceased mother, she saves the boy's life and, knowing no other way to keep him alive, decides that - along with her partner Raul (Rocky Salumbides) - she will train the boy to do what she does and work as a mercenary assassin.
There is none of the sweetness of Leon: The Professional in Mikhail Red's bloody thriller. This is a hard world which leaves little room for sentiment. Though there's a suggestion that the events we see are taking place in the future, this is, at most, a slightly exaggerated version of a situation familiar today. Since the return of the EJK (extra-judicial killing, associated with the Marcos regime in the Seventies and Eighties and more recently revived by supporters of Rodrigo Duterte as part of his War on Drugs), it has become easy to get away with murder simply by identifying the body as that of a drug trafficker. Several films have already touched on this subject but few have done so with the pace and fury of Red's work, which never lets its bleak social realism overwhelm the punchy thriller at its core.
There are echoes of City Of God in the tale of young Toto following his brother into crime and getting in deeper and deeper despite his reluctance to harm others, but there's far less light relief available here. Occasional moments of humour struggle to breathe for long: Toto is embarrassed by his attraction to Irma and struggles to hide it in situations where such distractions are completely inappropriate. For her part, she becomes increasingly attached to the boy, not just in the manner of a substitute mother but as if she sees in his absence of killer instinct some kind of hope for them all. Can it be enough?
Fast, brutal and powered by an ever-present sense of menace that makes the slower scenes the most nerve-racking of all, Neomanila, which screened at this year's Fantasia is one of those films whose roughness works in its favour. Its proximity to real events makes it impossible to keep at a distance, and its ending is a cri de cœur.Reviewed on: 26 Jul 2018