Earlier this year, MNL 143 stole headlines clear across the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, the film’s popularity wasn’t born out of the movie itself but by its controversial disqualifaction from this year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival.
But with MNL 143’s Philippine premiere only two days away, it begs the question: was it worth it?
To talk about MNL 143 without the slightest mention of the controversy surrounding it – though admirable – is an exercise in futility. MNL 143 will forever be marred (at least locally) as that film that sent Cinemalaya into a tailspin.
And though I respect critics that believe movies should be reviewed on their own merits; it’s been my personal belief that films exist in a space well outside the cinema. Films are beings of context, and live in the same world as its audiences.
And this world so happens to be one where MNL 143 was controversially disqualified from the most prestigious independent film festival in the country. And yet, director Emerson Reyes manages to produce a film that carries on despite that.
MNL 143‘s story follows the last day of an FX driver (Allan Paule) before his departure for a job in Saudi Arabia. It isn’t his first stint abroad however, and it’s revealed that he had returned to Manila to search for his long lost love (Joy Viado). Though the film’s premise may seem overly melodramatic, Reyes manages to craft an endearing depiction of missed opportunity and life long regret.
The film plants the audience firmly at the center of Paule’s FX in his final drive across the metropolis. During the trip, the film tracks the comings and goings of various passengers, with some playing only fleeting roles, flying in and out of their scene at a moment’s notice.
In that sense, MNL 143 avoids the pitfall of the independent road trip movie. Its cast of characters aren’t cursed with having to plod through meaningless dramatic exposition or contrived stop overs. They move in and out of each other’s life as they would on any commute.
The passengers aren’t connected in any profound way. But rather they are connected by merely being passengers – eavesdropping on each other’s conversations, texting, calling and cursing their way through traffic. The result is a world in itself, made up by the four wheels of a worn down FX, and mayored by its soft-spoken driver.
Like most independent productions, there is an intentional smallness to the film; a fact that can be easily forgotten with all the media attention surrounding MNL 143. But the film is made larger by its wonderfully characterized supporting roles.
But the most surprising aspect of MNL 143 is its humor. Despite the film’s lack of a strong plot, the film manages to balance that unique tone of drama and lightness with its successful brand of black humor and Filipino candidness.
There is an unmistakable romanticism to the film; a forgivable naivety that is driven by Paule’s desire to find his long lost love. But unfortunately, this is where the film’s context becomes alarmingly present in the viewing of MNL 143.
It is because of the film’s controversy that we are painfully aware of the film’s cast; Allan Paule and Joy Viado. And in an effort to preserve the heart of the film, I can only admit that I personally feel that the film would’ve been better off had I not known who Paule’s love interest was. This does not sabotage the film in any grave sense, but it does make me wonder how things would’ve played out had I come to the emotional realization the way the filmmakers had intended.
But again, it begs the question: was the film worth it?
It’s a valid question, and the one that I’ve been asked the most. However, it is also an absurd one. Because when does a film become worth it?
Having seen the film in its entirety, it’s clear that MNL 143 had no lofty goals of redefining Philippine cinema. It made no overt attempts at a grand sociopolitical statement, nor did it challenge any sort of entrenched filmmaking paradigm. What it did struggle to do, however, was to exist.
In the end, MNL 143 isn’t a film that everyone will appreciate. It is a small film that admittedly borders on melodrama at times, with a plot that barely exists among the textbook length of characters. However, it is a film that aims to entertain, delight and show a side of our lives that is made painfully real through the lens of a camera.
As I mentioned earlier, there is an unmistakable romanticism to MNL 143—the naively innocent idea of finding your long lost love amidst an ocean of strangers. It is a fool’s dream, but one that Reyes’ film firmly believes in.
In that sense, it’s easy to put yourself in the shoes of the passengers of the very same FX, hoping against hope, that you’ll get to where you want to go.
PARA SA TAMAD MAGBASA:
Despite the controversy, there is nothing blatantly controversial about MNL 143. It is a small film, emboldened by its ability to entertain, delight and to move.
Editor’s Note: I’ve been asked time and time again as to why I’ve decided to delay the release of this review for as long as I have. In truth, MNL 143 sparked a discussion that the industry and its supporters should continue long after this film has had its run. It is a discussion far bigger than casting choices and film festivals, movie rights and facebook quarrels. It is a discussion about the independence of our films; and the responsibility we have because of that independence. Two days before the Philippine premiere of MNL 143, it’s important to keep that discussion going.