I remember watching Mikhail Red’s “Rekorder” back in 2013 and was amazed by how he detailed Manila and all its grit and without making it ugly. He explored the dark corners of Manila’s seedier areas without exploiting them.
In his QCinema entry “Neomanila,” he takes a different approach to the city. “Neomanila” still takes us through Manila’s underbelly where gangs, addicts, and mercenaries live but as his main characters, Irma and Toto, move from one place to another, he captures the busy, dirty streets of Manila but the skyscrapers of Makati loom prominently in the distance.
In the night scenes, the effect is dazzling as Makati skyline shines brightly against the grime of these disparate character’s world. It’s a clear indication that there is another world in Manila and never does Irma or Toto come to close it.
Toto is an orphan, who sleeps in the streets and visits his brother Kiko in jail. Kiko’s life hangs in the balance as the gang he runs with are afraid he might talk to the police and rat on them. Toto has to earn the money to post his bail before the gang silences him permanently. Toto befriends Irma, a mercenary and enforcer for a man called ‘Sarge,’ and she takes Toto in under her protection.
“Neomanila” is not afraid to get down and dirty to prove what Irma’s partner, Raul, tells Toto in the film: “There’s no difference between victim and criminal” in these parts of town. As Toto is forced to think about what he will grow up to be, amidst the crime and danger that surround him, Irma forms an attachment to the boy.
Tim Castillo gives a powerhouse performance of a boy on the cusp of losing his innocence. He’s street-smart enough to have survived this long but as he is exposed to Irma’s world, he begins to see how young and innocent he still is. Castillo delivers this character whole and we can see it in the genuine horror betrayed by his body language and timbre of voice when he sees things a kid his age shouldn’t have to see.
Eula Valdez is almost unrecognizable as Irma. Completely deglamorized, Valdez portrays a woman who has been beaten down by this life and has emerged tough and strong. Valdez shines when she has something to do, an emotion to express, a conflict she struggles with. But there is a heaviness to her posture, to her gait, that doesn’t sell Irma as a cold-blooded killer. I’m nitpicking here because she’s amazing in her most significant scenes but it’s in the quiet moments when I stop seeing the mercenary.
All good films don’t just present us with ideas but proves them. “Neomanila” shows us the horrors of this kind of life, where hope and redemption are as unreachable as the Makati skyline.
It’s a powerful film that doesn’t pull its punches. Mikhail Red paints a bleak picture of innocence lost where victims and criminals are one and the same, and by the end of the film, you believe it to be true.