MNL 143 is as much a love song to the crazy/beautiful metropolis of Manila as it is a love story between two people who do not look like movie stars. In Philippine cinema, the lead characters of a love story have to be portrayed by beautiful actors. That is the reason why Emerson Reyes, MNL 143’s director, came at loggerheads with Cinemalaya’s organizers: they wanted to replace the director’s cast with younger, more physically attractive people. Reyes should be commended for sticking to his vision. It’s about time a Pinoy movie features a love story of two ordinary-looking people. That said, it’s just unfortunate that MNL 143 spends much of its time not on the love story but on sketches of public transport life, sketches that are as light-hearted as they are utterly trite, if not a little juvenile.
Ramil (Allan Paule) is a forty-something mini-van driver who, like Julio Madiaga in Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag (1975), has been searching for his beloved, Mila (Joy Viado) in the megacity of Manila. We learn that the two met and fell in love in some provincial town until Ramil decided to work in Saudi Arabia so he could save up enough money for their future together. It is intimated that they lost contact over the years. When his contract ended, he came back to the town still hoping to marry Mila and was told that she went to Manila to strike out on her own, devastated as she was by Ramil’s departure.
Ramil spends the next five years working as a public transport driver in the hope that Mila might someday hop on as his passenger. Having finally lost hope of ever finding her, he decides to go back to Saudi Arabia. The film shows what happens on his last day of plying his taxi from Buendia (in Pasay City) to Fairview (in Quezon City), an approximately 25 km-long route that would take about 90 minutes, give or take a few for traffic flow variations. The bulk of passengers, though, hop on and off throughout the course of the ride, much like bus passengers would, and director Reyes handpicks passenger types to people his “road trip” film. There’s the cranky old woman who complains about everything (the traffic, the heat, Ramil’s driving, etc.); two guys who tell each other racist jokes in Tagalog when a Japanese girl rides beside them, only to learn later that she can understand Tagalog; a chef who videotapes a hole on the pants of a sleeping passenger in front of him; two hyperactive students making a film for a class project; three gay men talking about unrequited love; among others.
MNL 143 is Reyes’ first full-length feature. The last film he directed was Walang Katapusang Kwarto, a short film that features a conversation of a young couple post-coitus in a small apartment bedroom. There’s no plot: the appeal has to do with the naturalistic acting of the couple (who is also a couple in real life) and the cute (though sometimes precious) dialogue-driven script. Reyes is a perceptive observer of social mores and of life’s ironies, filling the couple’s conversation with random musings, with such lines as “Why do people go quiet all of a sudden when they enter an elevator?” or “Math needs to grow up and solve its own problems.”
For MNL 143, Reyes attempts to move out of the constricted bedroom space and uses the whole metropolis as backdrop for his love story. In parts of the film, he succeeds in showing the city’s chaos, noise, and heat. There are also beautiful shots of the streets crawling with various modes of transport. Reyes’ romantic Manila is vastly different from Brocka’s predatory Manila. It’s as if Reyes is saying, “Hey, Manila is not just a city of slums and hardship, it’s also a city of middle-class commuters and of hopeless romantics”.
For the most part, though, Reyes could not resist going back to his comfort zone of capturing realistic conversations within a confined space. But his decision to do this by focusing on passenger sketches that have nothing to do with the main storyline (save for some few hints on not giving up on love) instead of further building audience empathy for Ramil, leaves the viewer uninvested in Ramil’s quest. Throughout the film I was waiting to be pulled in but the unimaginative and pointless passenger sketches held me at arm’s length. That is why that extended crying scene of Ramil brought about by a love song playing on the radio does not do anything for the viewer except maybe to appreciate Paule’s acting skills.
The only time the film engaged me was towards the end, (spoiler warning) when Mila shows up, even if there were lapses that don’t make sense (like Ramil all of a sudden not objecting to two passengers riding on the front seat, Ramil not immediately recognizing Mila’s very distinctive voice, and Paule’s acting lacking any hint of excitement once his character realizes that the woman he’s been searching for thirteen years is sitting on the front seat of his cab). Still, one can’t help but feel kilig when two ordinary-looking people get a chance to reignite their love story. It’s a slap to the faces of movie studio executives and festival directors who still cling to the Jurassic idea that only pretty people falling in love are worth watching onscreen.
The film’s saving grace is its music. Since there’s no musical scoring, key moments are punctuated by new songs written expressly for the film by such talented artists as Jensen Gomez, Peryodiko, Fando and Lis, among others. In the end, I’m still happy that this film was made (and on the director’s own terms). Emerson Reyes is young and promising, and I have extreme confidence that he’ll only improve in the future.
 Called “FX” in the Philippines, derived from the most common vehicle model used, the Toyota Tamaraw FX.