I’m not going to suggest that I have any idea what it means to be a Filipino national at this point. Lead by a corrupt dictator, who also happens to be somehow one of Donald Trump’s favorite people, the Philippines are currently in the midst of a War on Drugs the likes of which America has never seen. In Mikhail Red’s new film NEOMANILA, he takes us inside the unofficially sanctioned death squads that hunt down drug pushers and kill them. It’s a gritty film that easily brings to mind SICARIO, but manages to be entirely new due to the character setup.
At the opening of the film, Toto (Tim Castillo) is a young street kid just struggling to get by. When his older brother is incarcerated, he does what he can to get bail together, eventually discovering a local gang has taken a contract out on both him and his brother. He is saved from a hopeless future by tough-as-nails contract killer Irma (Eula Valdez). She takes him under her wing and begins to train him us her protege in Duterte’s War on Drugs. The audience is put in the position of having to root for a character conducting what to an American mind is clearly vigilante justice.
As much as I wanted to like this film, I never quite felt an attachment to the action. Knowing the director is from the Philippines but also the son of a famous Filipino director himself, it is hard to not see the film as a bit of convenient cultural self-appropriation without true understanding. For a film that wants to be inside the minds of these contract killers, it seems hopelessly unable to capture their true nature – as if the director is too far removed from what is going on in the streets to truly tell the story. Of course, with the global notoriety of the story matter, I can easily see why this film is having success on the international circuit. In addition, Red is a known commodity whose work has been selected to represent the Philippines at the Oscars. This film just didn’t quite capture what I think could have been a really important picture of the current reality in his home country.