Director Mikhail Red’s Neomanila takes a look at the drug war in Manila from the perspective of a child brought into the city’s seedy underbelly and the mother figure who recruits him into a death squad to try and raise him to be able to handle the streets on his own. Many of the films from the Philippines take a critical look at the underprivileged and dire circumstances surrounding those in urban areas. Those failed systems in place and the inevitable evolution through the crime world is what gives Neomanila its potency. It’s film primed to criticize governing powers, but nevertheless often feels muted in its matter-of-fact delivery.
Toto (Timothy Castillo) wanders the streets at night hoping to find a way to get his brother out of prison. Observed by Irma (Eula Valdez), he is taken under her wing and trained to handle the world without the presence of his brother. Much of Neomanila has this acceptance of the worst to come; Toto’s probably never going to get his brother out of prison, and in fact, we don’t even know if he has lived past the early moments we see him behind bars. Red has characters move on from events, with supporting players wafting in and out of the narrative in a very life-like way. People come and go, but it’s a matter of not dwelling on the past, which Irma passes down to Toto — even if sometimes her actions don’t align with her words.
The wayin which Neomanila is presented is very matter-of-fact — what is happening is the way things will happen. It’s a double-edged sword, as what is being shown is heartbreaking. Loved ones leave your life in sudden ways, and there’s always a lingering threat that it will happen to you too. At the same time, there’s no real room for hope. The film doesn’t have the scope to explore the circumstances that put people in these disastrous situations, but instead relies on a very closed-off personal story. It’s not to say that the story lacks happiness, but it’s more about finding happiness in the despair — something which becomes increasingly more difficult as you see the walls closing in around you.
Mikhail Red uses a very singular tale to illuminate a broken system and how people try to maneuver through it. The approach is effective overall, but the film is also a hard watch because there’s not a lot to cling onto except a sad teenager and how his life will grow under the guidance of a death squad. The violence is severe and abrupt, but it’s the moments in between that often feel flat, despite their underlying themes. Perhaps it’s because there’s an inherent difficulty in getting attached to a movie that immediately feels like there’s no chance of happiness. More moments of bonding would have gone a long way toward making Neomanila an easier viewing, but its stance on a crumbling society still makes it an important, recommended watch.