Neomanila is a noirish film depicting a city smothered by a seemingly free-for-all vigilante system aimed to exterminate pushers and drug addicts, while leaving behind a trail of innocent victims.
It presents a believable and beautifully shot behind-the-scenes look at the ugly news headlines of topical drug-related killings.
The film revolves around Irma—a cold, calculating, yet maternal “hitman” who is on a police-approved killing spree.
Irma is played by Eula Valdes, while Rocky Salumbides—Valdes’s real-life partner—acts as her reel-life partner-in-crime, Raul.
Both are shielded from the consequences of their sins by a certain officer they call “Sarge.”
Timothy Castillo, as Toto, is a teen caught in the web of complicated connections brought by his brother’s association with the illegal drug trade.
His evident vulnerability triggers Irma’s motherly instinct. She takes him under her care while secretly completing a personal mission on her own.
Directed by Vancouver International Film Fest 2014 Best New Director awardee Mikhail Red, Neomanila is the 25-year old filmmaker’s entry to the 2017 QCinema Circle Competition.
There is nothing new in the Manila presented in Neomanila. The interior streets are still grimy, children and adults perpetually look famished and sweaty, and its dark corners are still gritty.
But Direk Mikhail managed to make Manila’s unsightly surroundings visually slick.
Manila’s muck becomes almost pretty, as if the gloss managed to cloak the city with a veneer of beauty while it struggles in the midst of a persistent onslaught of horror.
The contrast continues with the similarly contradictory character of Irma—played with a perfect balance of compassion and chilling pragmatism by Eula.
Her Irma is a “badass” criminal with a heart of gold, or is she?
Eula makes audiences wonder who Irma is or what she really stands for.
Her convincing portrayal of Irma as a psychological puzzle leaves you guessing where her missing pieces really belong.
Rocky Salumbides is memorable as the Clyde to Irma’s Bonnie. His penetrating eyes project a guise of evil camouflaged by an alluring front.
His on-screen presence, just like his character’s intentions, keeps you tense since no one seems to know what he will do next.
Toto is the only character whose intentions are blatantly obvious.
Timothy Castillo disappears into his role as a young, helpless teen struggling to keep himself alive in a tide of events over which he has no control.
His affecting performance makes it easy to latch onto, root, and feel sorry for his character’s unexpected destiny.
The movie’s slow and lingering pace is intermittently broken by bursts of frenetic energy which later settle into an emotional plateau up until the next round of killings occur.
Explosive scenes are sandwiched between lengthy lulls of benign activity.
Boredom won’t get you but impatience probably will. Neomanila seems to aspire for a contemplative mood but falls short of it as the effort is more cerebral than natural, more intellectual than psychological.
The film keeps you at arm’s length.
It impresses upon viewers an impersonal detachment that seems to echo the dynamic of Irma and Raul’s professional responsibility—a bringer of death to the guilty with accompanying apologies to the accidentally affected innocent.
The end result is an audience easily taken by Neomanila’s visually compelling narrative, but at the same time, it leaves a hollow, empty feeling not even its impressive and powerful graphics could fill.
Mikhail Red’s fluency in the language of film is sufficient enough to make viewers take notice of the spectacle that is Neomanila.
Simply bearing witness to the maturity of his talent (at 25 years old!) is worth the price of a movie ticket.
Neomanila is one of the entries of QCinema 2017, which is ongoing until October 28.
Entries are being screened at Gateway Mall, Robinsons Galleria, Trinoma, U.P. Town Center; and at Cinematheque Centre Manila on T.M. Kalaw, Manila.
Ed's Note: The 'PEP Review' section carries the views of individual reviewers, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the PEP editorial team.