Neomanila (Mikhail Red, 2017)

Neomanila posterWhat kind of future can there be on the streets of Duterte’s Philippines? For one orphaned son of Manila’s slums, the only answer he can see is none at all. “I’m going to die no matter what I do”, he tells a surrogate maternal figure whose conflicted maternity will eventually bring about ruin for them both. Mikhail Red’s Neomanila is the latest in a string of films to examine the social costs of Duterte’s “Extra Judicial Killings” of “Drug Dealers” often conducted by vigilante bounty hunters working with the tacit complicity of legitimate law enforcement. Inheriting a world of corruption where life is cheap and sensitivity breeds despair, boys like Toto (Timothy Castillo) find themselves caught in the crossfire of an increasingly heartless regime.

When we first meet Toto, he’s trying to visit his older brother, Kiko (Ross Pesigan), who has been rounded up by the police in a drug dealer trawl. Kiko is small fry – a petty gangster only peripherally connected with the drug trade, but the police are holding him in the hope of tracking down another suspect, Ringgo (Edwin Nombre). The problem is, unbeknownst to Kiko or to Toto, Ringgo is already dead – he was the dealer we just saw gunned down in the street by a hired assassin. Trying to figure out how to get the bail money together for his brother, Toto pays a visit to a local gang boss and then hangs out with his girlfriend Gina (Angeline Andoy) in between running petty errands for the gang. One particular job brings him into the orbit of Irma (Eula Valdez) – a woman running a “pest control” business who used to know his mother before she was killed in a fire in the slums some years ago. Irma offers him a job in her store, but Toto quickly becomes aware that Irma runs a lucrative sideline as a hitwoman for hire. Together with her partner (both romantic and crime) Raul (Rocky Salumbides), Irma works for mysterious police handler Sarge who gives the pair frequent assignments to take care of “suspects” and bring home the drugs as well as other kinds of “valuable” “evidence” including phones and weaponry.

Orphaned at a young age, Toto is left entirely alone on the streets of Manila. He’s not a really part of the gang and cannot rely them for familial support and with his brother out of the picture he has no one to stand for him. The quasi-maternal connection he builds with Irma is he closest thing to family he has experienced in quite some time. Irma too, apparently mother to an absent son, quickly takes on the role of Toto’s protector – she gives him her own son’s clothes, feeds him, and later takes him out on trips to the karaoke bar or shopping to buy trainers all while “training” him to become a part of her outfit even whilst believing that Toto is somehow “better” and not “like the other” kids from the slums who get mixed up in drugs and crime through having no other options to survive. Wanting to “contribute” as part of the family, Toto goes along with Irma’s morally dubious education but he is also still a child with a deeply felt sense of humanity and justice and is therefore increasingly conflicted about the duo’s heartlessness and refusal to question their various assignments.

Trapped by the world he has inherited, Toto has few options other than to conform to the harshness of its rules or risk becoming a victim of them. The vision Red paints of modern Manila is one lit by gloomy neon half-light in which gangsters go to mass and priests preach about the seventh commandment while the state itself sanctions bloody murder in the streets conducted by those with vested interests in perpetuating a world of inescapable poverty in which death has become an industry. Drenched in despair and unbelievably bleak, Neomanila is a story of a city eating itself alive in which there is no future, no possibility of salvation, and innocence is just another weakness to be burned on an altar to (im)moral austerities so that the world might feel “safer” to those who live in fear of its self-created evils.


Neomanila was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Crossroads: One Two Jaga (十字路口, Nam Ron, 2018)

crossroads one two jaga posterThe world is increasingly interconnected but far from greater freedom and increased possibilities, exploitation is often all that awaits those seeking opportunities overseas. Crossroads: One Two Jaga (十字路口) places the undocumented migrant worker at its centre and uncovers a deeply entrenched system of corruption and hypocrisy in which the line between the forces of order and chaos is so thin as to be barely discernible. The migrant worker is exploited twice over – once by the employers and again by the police who blackmail and extort, pulling in anyone who seems “suspicious” whenever they find themselves short of a few pennies. With no recourse to the “law” and no route “home”, there is little hope for a brighter future for any but those who seek to profit from other people’s misery.

Beginning at the end, we open on the bruised face of a young man who has prominent stitches on his cheek. Something tells us he is a police officer, but he is in questioning over the death of a young boy, killed by a bullet from his weapon. The officer looks stunned and claims to know nothing. As it turns out he may be telling the truth, but he alone is responsible for a child’s death, on the one hand, and exposing a corrupt police chief, on the other.

Flashing back, Joko (Izuan Fitri) – the son of Indonesian migrant worker Iman (Ario Bayu), wants to go for a ride with Adi (Amerul Affendi) – the adult son of Mr. Sarip (Azman Hassan) who runs a small construction firm (among other enterprises). Iman doesn’t really want his son to go, but he ignores him and goes anyway. Iman has another problem on his hands – his sister, Sumiyati (Asmara Abigail), who has left the family she was working for as a maid and wants to go home to Indonesia. Mr. Sarip says he can help with that (for a price) but Sumiyati is stopped by Hassan (Rosdeen Suboh) and his rookie partner Hussein (Zahiril Adzim). Hassan really just wants a bribe because his wife really needs money to avoid family embarrassment, but things goes south when Iman ropes in Adi to try and help him out only to escalate the situation into a declaration of war on the “rogue” policemen.

Undocumented workers exist in a kind of grey area which makes it possible for the unscrupulous to misuse them for their own ends. Sumiyati, like many young women, has gone abroad to work as a maid but found herself kept a virtual prisoner by her employer who holds her passport as a guarantee. With job parameters unclear, she finds herself not only maid but cook, babysitter, and office assistant and all for almost no pay. Fed up she upped and left, but lost her passport in the process leaving her with no legal way back to Indonesia which is where she’s decided she’d rather go. The only way “home” is through the back door channels operated by men like Mr. Sarip who have fingers in many pies and friends in all the right places.

Ordinarily speaking, a righteous rookie cop would be our hero, but we already know Hussein is our villain. Though he wants to enforce the letter of the law and resents the casual corruption of other officers, it’s his hotheadedness and refusal to play the long game which eventually cause so much trouble. Accidentally or otherwise, he does manage to unmask the kingpin responsible for holding together a system of corruption running from the top of the force down, collaborating with the criminals and turning a blind eye to real “crime”, but it comes at a heavy price and one to which Hussein seems worryingly indifferent.

Stylishly shot, Crossroads weaves a complex picture of interconnected exploitations in which the innocent are made to pay the price for the world in which they live. Realist in essence but expressionist in intent, gritty images of children disposing of bodies mingle with a father’s nightmare as blood colours the rain soaked ground and a young woman disappears in its miasmic haze. Malaysia maybe the crossroads of Asia, but it also finds itself at something of a junction unsure in which direction to turn, unwilling to confront the darkness that lies at the heart of the modern society.   


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Official trailer (English subtitles)