Neomanila (Philippines, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

Mikhail Red’s third feature Neomanila follows Toto (Timothy Castillo), an orphan living on the streets of Manila after his older brother is arrested for drug-related crimes. After Toto’s brother is killed, he is taken in by a notorious death squad led by an old friend of Toto’s mother. Irma (Eula Valdez) agrees to make Toto an apprentice, which Toto sees as a chance to obtain revenge for his brother’s death. Along with Raul (Rocky Salumbides), the death squad receives their orders on who to target from the mysterious Sarge. All of the targets are drug dealers. While living together, Irma and Toto develop a mother-son bond, showing not only Irma’s soft side, but Toto’s innocence. Eventually things go bad and we discover just how fragile relationships are in Irma’s line of work.

Neomanila graphically illustrates the seedy underbelly of Manila whose citizens are at the mercy of drugs, gangs, the police, and the death squads. Violence, or at least the threat of it, is everywhere. Red also seems to be making a political statement about the government’s recent practice of “extrajudicial killings” under President Dutarte in his war on drugs. Though not touted publicly, the practice seems to occur quite frequently. The film is a thriller with touches of neo-noir and in-your-face realism, making for a gritty and disturbing experience. Neomanila received a cinematography award in October at the QCinema Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. It takes place entirely within the poorest neighborhoods of Manila. Squalor is everywhere and you can almost feel the hopelessness.

This is also a distressing film to watch. You can’t help but feel for Toto. He lost his mother in a fire and then lost his brother to gang violence. He now has a hit out on him from his brother’s old gang who think Toto ratted them all out. He even loses his girlfriend to the gang. There is a hopefulness for Toto to not end up like his brother and others caught up in the world of drug dealers and addicts when Irma takes him under her wing. There is a touching scene where the two share drinks and karaoke. Unfortunately for kids like Toto, hope is fleeting, and Neomanila builds to an ending is something of a surprise, but still heartbreaking. Highly recommended.

Neomanila is showing on July 5 at the New York Asian Film Festival.