‘Neomanila’ is a biting, brilliant neo-noir, a cold and caustic crime thriller set in a city where the state-sponsored murder of drug dealers and users is a regular occurrence. In the near-apocalyptic setting of the Philippine capital, we follow a series of exterminators out to rid the city of undesirables, leaving only a soiled cardboard sign to designate the body as one of the fallen.
Intertwined in this narrative is the story of a young boy who seeks to help out his jailed brother, who was caught up by a police department more interested in filling the jails than worried about just who did the deed warranting imprisonment. From there, we’re gifted with a chess game between gangsters, hitmen and cops, each vying for a piece of this slippery moral territory.
‘Neomanila’ is also a family drama, where both straightforward affection and an undercurrent of Oedipal affection draws the central characters together. Unafraid to explore extremes of adolescent sexuality and violence, the film equally makes complex the nurturing community that develops around violent acts. The twin lusts of revenge and carnal pleasure are at play, all driven by a sense of survival.
As the tense thriller plays out, writer/director Mikhail Red deftly juggles these disparate elements to craft a visceral, intoxicating blend. The performances by young Timothy Castillo and Eula Valdez are sublime. Each injects a ferocity and sensitivity that speak to the paradoxical states of their characters’ being. Shot with a gritty realism, you can practically smell the funk of the soiled alleyways and bloated corpses that litter the Manila streets, and feel the sweat running down your neck as the humidity cuts into your lungs. The film pulls you in, suffocating you with its moral quandaries and claustrophobic nature, finding a world you’re drawn to yet desperate to shake off.
There are echoes of the brilliant ‘Sicario’ on display here, but this is no grand tale of kingpins and players. These are the pawns and foot soldiers in a depraved game of power and addiction, where betrayals stack up nearly as often as bodies.
A smart producer would snag the remake rights up immediately, crafting a ‘Blade Runner’-like near-future horror where the war on drugs has shifted so that the cleanup of the streets is outsourced to merciless bounty hunters. What’s most chilling, of course, is that these acts need not be the stuff of speculative fiction for those in Manila; the news footage at the end speaks to the reality of this absurd, abjectly awful situation where poison is being used to rout poison.
Scathing, sublime, ‘Neomanila’ is a terrific work of international cinema, bristling with excellence and impact. It’s a harrowing tale unafraid to amp up the tragedy but never at the expense of the story. A hidden gem, ‘Neomanila’ deserves to be seen as a new genre classic that speaks to contemporary horrors in ways few films dare to even attempt.