A orphaned teenage boy, Toto (Timothy Castillo), tries to raise money to bail out his brother Kiko, under arrest for his links to a drug gang which Toto fears plan to kill the brothers to prevent a confession. Toto ends up under the protection of Irma (Eula Valdez), a professional hitwoman and former friend of his mothers. She slowly begins showing Toto what it takes to be an assassin, becoming both mentor and mother figure.
Neomanila is described as a “neo-noir” that observes “the phenomenon of extra-judicial killings”. That feels technically correct, but more evocative of something interesting than this film actually manages.
There are some dark shadows, there is crime, and some moral ambiguity, so I guess it qualifies as neo-noir. But Neomanila doesn’t have its heart in it, really. There is nothing particularly creative in the use of light and shadow, and by avoiding ever actually engaging with the politics or morality, the moral ambiguity is affectless rather than something that provokes thought.
The extra-judicial killings going on in the Philippines are a backdrop to the movie, but they aren’t actually the point of anything. If you knew nothing about Duerte’s War on Drugs, you aren’t likely to miss anything save maybe the meaning of some signs. It doesn’t observe the extra-judicial killings, the killings are almost completely irrelevant.
Castillo’s performance is strong for what he is given, but he is largely a blank passive slate, pushed around by circumstance. He seems like a kid, and is one, which undercuts the world-weary that a noir protagonist thrives in. (It makes his sex scenes fairly awkward as well.) Valdez fits the hard boiled noir tropes better, but is held at an even further remove.
I suppose I could be generous and say it has a Kubrickian sterility that is supposed to suggest something about the meaningless of it all. Maybe that is the intent. But if so, it succeeded too well, telling a serviceable story that doesn’t mean anything of note.