Directed by Emerson Reyes
written by Emerson Reyes and Ade Perilla
*Note: an FX, for those who aren't aware, is one of the staples of public transportation in Manila and is, essentially. a mash up of a cab and a very small midibus.
The bigger fish fried, with regards to Emerson Reyes' MNL 143, a loose-jointed portmanteau pivoting around an FX* driver's fruitless search for his longlost love, has to do with how its brief but tremulous history has brought to harsh light what has become the quintessential discourse of Philippine cinema in the noughties: when is an independent film truly independent? Cinemalaya has long basked in a glory that has re-purposed what was really a confluence of media muscle and high-impact branding, that name being a particular stroke of genius for coinage and connotation, into its highly arguable equity as the layman end-all be-all of independent cinema. At least up until it disqualified Emerson and his film over, of all things, casting issues. At least, for a brief time, back then.
At the gregarious height of the very public furor, even before a single frame was shot, MNL 143 had become provisionally known as the film that outed Cinemalaya for misrepresenting itself as a grant-giving body, and the sovereign one at that, when its dynamic and philosophy was closer to a boutique studio, beholden as it was to the show business caprices of its selection committee and the purse strings of its benefactor. Predictably enough, now that the festival is fast approaching, status quos have been restored and not a rustle heard about the scandal. MNL 143 will always be a cautionary both of what happened and what may be happening still, but on its shoulders now unfairly rests a tremendous amount of polemic that it shouldn't bear, at least not anymore, as it unwittingly hangs its failure or success on the wrong things. And the irony is that, for something so freighted, it's an almost diametrically modest work: plotless, lackadaisical, blithe.
MNL 143 sidelines its diffident Romeo, and his ordeal, for the parade of strangers who flit in and out of his cab, casting the same laconic, slightly curious but mostly transient eye on them, as those of us who've ridden cabs like these day after day have. The effect is like watching someone else channel-surf. And if nothing sticks perhaps that's out of how nothing is really meant to. This temporal, claustrophobic, often uneventful, and familiar pocket universe of our lives as commuters is the universe of the film, and one suffused with the random, from the banal to the amusing to the touching but never the truly consequential. Even when things actually start to happen, and despite the satisfying surge of endorphin near the end, they happen with a peculiar lack of fanfare, as if to say that the love of your life is just another fare who gets on your cab and gets out at her stop, another unfinished story, another interrupted arc, another brief life with no closure. It's also Emerson's canny way of throwing us off the film's scent.
But there is a scene halfway through, where the lovelorn cabbie (Allan Paule), who is the film’s center of gravity or rather its disarming lack of it, turns on the radio and breaks down to a lovesick ballad. Granted, it’s a reined-in breakdown, overwhelmed yet understated, but even as it smacks, at first, of something plucked out of a glossed-up studio rom-com, it slowly and inexorably becomes discomfiting as it lingers longer than it should and even longer than that, until the ickiness spills over from mushy verging on mawkish to something approaching poignancy. It is the first and only time in the film he confronts how much of a cross his longing has become, how much it bristles with deep-seated regret, but it's enough to reveal its hand. The unmistakable emotional timbre of MNL 143 really draws from the kitschy jukebox pop you hear when it opens, thusly distilled as country music by way of 50s balladry by way of unguarded sentimentality by way of shameless corn, which is how we also dismiss our feelings when we wear our hearts on our sleeve, perhaps for fear of giving ourselves over to the harm that comes from doing so.
We are a people who not only succumb to mawk when no one's looking but whose reflex action after we've cried our hearts out is to shrug. And the nonchalance that makes MNL 143 so breezy, so amiable, is really this casual, perhaps even endemic, optimism we conduct our lives with, the passive belief that everything will turn out OK and even if it doesn’t, well, that’s OK, too. It’s a sentiment that dovetails neatly into the real-life backstory of the film, which almost never got made but eventually was, under duress and with less than a quarter of the original budget, and becoming, too, in the process, a de facto figurehead against the artistic repression we had foolishly thought we were rid of. The making of MNL 143 may be a lofty achievement but the film itself is a triumph of under-reach.