Manila Undressed: A Review of Emerson Reyes’ MNL 143

by Christelle Delvo

 

Emerson Reyes writes a love letter to the city of Manila with his first full-length feature film, MNL 143. Reyes pays a lovely and often humorous tribute to the city’s sights and sounds closer to reality – streets heavy with private and public transportation vehicles, barkers left and right, the sun’s heat on bare skin, passengers stepping in and out of everywhere, and crowds consuming crowds in all directions. Ultimately, he paints a vision of Manila that is not just someone’s means to an end but rightfully as a home, a backdrop of a thousand individual stories.

The film features Ramil (Allan Paule), an FX driver, who is still bent on looking for Mila (Joy Viado), whom he has not seen for thirteen years since he moved to Saudi Arabia for employment. Armed with no address but a name and an old photo he keeps on his dashboard, he drives through the busy streets of Manila and turns every corner in hopes of finally finding her among the empty seats of his vehicle. On his last trip in the metro before he returns to the Middle East for a renewed two-year contract, his small encounters with passengers from Vito Cruz, Quiapo, Philcoa and Fairview drop quaint hints of the essence of what he might soon leave behind.

The film draws its humor, which is very naturally delivered, from everyday stereotypes of people we might know or even people we might be. MNL captures fragments of people’s lives and frames them in the eye of public space. Distinctly experienced from Ramil’s point of view, people come and go and leave merely faint traces. Their stories begin and end by each slam of the door. The foul-mouthed religious devotee, the conyo, the Internet-savvy pervert might never recall ever sharing the same space, but the film stands observant and appreciative of the quirks for the time wherein they once did.

Despite what seems like a strict limitation for storytelling, MNL does not fail to translate the emotion and aura of short-lived characters to heartfelt, memorable impact on audiences. Even as it weaves multiple storylines, no one story overpowers another into the backseat. There is the feeling of the full range of human sentimentality from the pains of a mother with a son who won’t come home as much as we feel the youthful vigour of a young filmmaker who thinks he knows what he’s doing.

 

The struggle for artistic freedom

These passionate measures just to tell a story were duly rewarded in time. Prior to the film’s Philippine premiere last July 7 at the UP Film Institute, MNL 143 debuted at the 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival last June as one among less than a handful that represented the arm of Philippine cinema.

Since its highly anticipated premiere, the film has been well-received especially by film critics such as Oggs Cruz and Don Juacian. On the night of its national premiere, MNL 143 was met by overwhelming support not only by a packed theatre but also by far-flung netizens eager to see the hard-earned piece.

But the film faced obstacles even before its premiere. MNL 143 was originally intended to be an entry to the 8th Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival under the New Breed category later this July. The film, however, faced controversy in the past year due to “creative differences” between the director and the Cinemalaya Organizing Committee regarding the casting of Allan Paule and Joy Viado for the lead roles. But Reyes, who tailor-fitted the material for Paule and who felt strongly about casting comedian and theatre actress Viado for Mila, insisted on his casting decision even when the committee churned out names such as Victor Neri, Francine Prieto and Jean Garcia for suggested alternatives.

This resulted in the film’s eventual disqualification from the festival, which urged people from the film community to question the level of artistic freedom that the institution really provides its directors.

After severing ties with the Cinemalaya Foundation, the team behind MNL 143 lobbied for support from friends and families, fans, artists and production companies who believed in what the film has to show and tell.

 

True love’s pedestal

Most notable of all elements that make a good film, and easily the best decision that has earmarked this film’s sure success are the performances of the two lead roles, whose actors were surely worth countering controversy.

Paule and Viado’s tandem, despite their debated chemistry, exhibit the purest of love – a love that has aged and drifted, and that is continually sought and never surrendered.

Also greatly contributing to the film’s effectivity to move and inspire was its brilliant sound editing. Naturally documenting the noise of a busy street in Quiapo easily proves to be reminiscent of a hot day for a commute known to most residents of the city.

Moreover, the soundtrack features original music written and performed by Jensen Gomez, Peryodiko, Carlos Castano, Rya Petines and Ling Lava, Boogie Romero, Fando and Lis, Archievals and Dalisay Cortes, among others. The songs chance on FM radio stations and portable players, providing needed commentary for a moment deemed to be void of words with full worth.

The making of and the film itself aims to teach valuable insights, such as hard work and passion. At all costs, Reyes succeeds in making an honest film. MNL is truly very humble. It does not dress Manila or its characters in glamour or ambition because it leads a notion that it doesn’t have to, as if to say that reality can be as cinematic as we need it to be. It moves viewers to regain an appreciation of what may usually pass for routine, and to look left and right in their next ride on an FX.

Emerson Reyes has carved his name in the industry with a film that audiences will find etched in their memory. MNL 143 seems unforgettable because the plot plays with familiarity of the daily commute since the premise.

 

MNL 143 will have a nationwide school tour by August. The team is currently arranging screenings in Fully Booked, Fort Bonifacio and UP Diliman for the rest of July.