Robert Diaz, an assistant professor at UofT, once did a lecture of the claustrophobia of Filipino spaces. That quality applies in Mikhail Red’s Neomanila. It also portrays how those characters navigate their spaces as they change identities.
Neomanila‘s protagonist, Toto (Timothy Castillo), walks from jail to church to a train yard. Those diverse places aren’t so distant from each other. And just like that, Toto’s role in Manila changes as easily as those spaces do.
Young Toto switches from drug runner to mercenary, complicating the few relationships he has. A theme in this fest is a yearning for normalcy. But how can relate with his neighborhood if he’s with the ‘bad guys’?
The politics here is equally complex. Sure it focuses more on Toto’s boss Irma’s (Eula Valdez) death squad than their victims. But there’s enough time in the film that it spends on the said victims. Some of them are even Toto’s age.
Neomanila follows Red’s festival films, giving empathy to amoral characters. Audiences also see what desperate young men like Toto do. His brother dies, so he has to to crash in Irma’s place.
The movie establishes Toto’s innocence in a cruel world, as there are scenes showing his physical reactions to his surroundings. The maternal relationship between Toto and Irma is also here but some of these scenes feel unnecessary.
The Philippines has waged a drug war with a death toll equaling to a genocide. The deaths are are few, which are fine. But there’s a distant coldness to some of the scenes depicting them that feels uncomfortable.
Despite those flaws, the film still beautifully portrays how citizens, young or old, find themselves subsumed within a death culture. Red chose a good lead in Castillo, who embodies what it’s like to live through an epidemic.