Emerson Reyes’ "MNL 143" is not a film one would consider ambitious in the ordinary sense of the term. It does not feature a sprawling story that is set in places that promise pomp and wonderment. At first glance, it can be seen as slight and inconsequential, especially to a film-going generation that is as addicted to social and political issues as a junkie is to crystal meth.
It mostly details the random experiences and encounters of Ramil (perfectly played by Allan Paule), a minivan driver on his final trip before leaving Manila to become one of the millions of overseas workers in the Middle East.
The failed romance of its plebeian protagonist, who plies the streets of Manila in the hope that the ex he has been searching for several years would end up as a passenger of his taxi, is the nearly-not-there plot. Much of the film relies on the various little stories, the ones suddenly initiated as passengers hop into Ramil’s overworked minivan and abruptly ended as they alight and head out wherever.
Reyes is a filmmaker who is constantly intrigued by space -- by the lack of it -- and that lack’s effects on the space’s occupiers. In "Walang Katapusang Kuwarto" (The Endless Room, 2011), he shoots his characters, a couple enjoying a post-coitus conversation, in extreme close-up, his actors’ faces filling up the entire frame. Through their consistently humorous discussions and the brilliantly executed sound device, the very limited space that Reyes visualizes is expanded, giving an overview of the private lives of their neighbors that are both exhilarating and sinful to indulge in. With the short, Reyes has created a voyeuristic work that craftily portrays voyeurs.
"MNL 143" expands that endless room of his earlier short, covering the cramped space of Ramil’s van as it travels the impossibly wide space that is Manila. His aptly suffocating visuals approximates the experience of the daily Manila commute, where one temporarily sacrifices his personal and private spaces for the ease of transportation. The commuters more than bump body parts; they actually involuntarily share their own life stories, although fleetingly, through the not-so-hidden text messages they compose and send to their loved ones or the gestures or the futilely whispered conversations to strangers.
Reyes’ film summarizes that tyranny of urban living, the forced social interactions, the scarceness of privacy, the paradoxes, and the ironies, that exist because of the precious conveniences of the city.
The film rightfully lacks urgency. It is relaxed and bathed with levity. Traditionally important issues that have become the stereotyped topics of the so-called Filipino indie like corruption in the government, extreme poverty or religious hypocrisy are portrayed by Reyes as unavoidable everyday matters, as necessary parts of the daily grind. They are not the sensationalized spectacles or soulless theses of the film’s more didactic counterparts.
Yet Reyes, through this very observant portraiture of the typical Manila commute, exposes a social ill. He reveals either society’s festering insensitivity to institutional evils, allowing them to freely exist in public with only outward hints of disapproval, or the Filipino’s tendency to adapt to grime and dirt with smiles and humor.
"MNL 143" is courageous in a way that it abandons traditional storytelling, allowing only the fragile mood of Ramil’s quixotic quest to resurrect a romance to thread things together. It is a picture enveloped by hope. It skirts big moments for subtlety and suggestions. The drama it offers is limited to the occasional surges of emotions that a man on the brink of giving up expresses, like in the arrestingly honest scene where Ramil reacts with a wordless but tearful confessional after hearing a love song on the radio.
The roughness of the film, the ambient noise and the glaring imperfections serendipitously meld with the chaos of the city that becomes Reyes’ canvass for his heartfelt snapshot of city life.
"MNL 143" betrays that voyeuristic aspect of cinema; of allowing us viewers to invade spectate on the lives of fictional or real characters to quench our thirst for escape. Instead, its fractions of stories are but glimpses of the people we may never understand and whose stories will never conveniently unravel in front of us.
Ramil’s love story may have begun again or it may have finally found its closure. We will never know, but Reyes at least allows us to be hopeful.
In the end, however, like Ramil, like the lover he wishes to be reunited with, like the foul-mouthed Catholic, like the amateur filmmakers who are all victims and perpetrators of the forced vices of the Manila commute, we can only be left delightfully in the dark of the lives of the characters outside the taxi.
The film closes in an optimistic but still enigmatic note, leaving behind abandoned punch lines, lovely ambiguities, and meaningful mysteries.
Oggs Cruz is a lawyer and critic. You can follow his blog "Lessons from the School of Inattention." (http://oggsmoggs.blogspot.com/)