Directed by Emerson Reyes
By Noel Vera
You’d think Emerson Reyes’s MNL 143 took inspiration from Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, or Steven Knight’s Locke — both very good films that largely take place inside a public transport vehicle — and you’d be wrong; Reyes’s film came out three years before Panahi’s, and a year before Knight’s. Not that I’m suggesting Panahi or Knight were inspired by Reyes (Though who knows? The film screened in the Edinburgh festival the year it was released), just that the Filipino filmmaker is every bit as capable of conceiving a reasonably novel concept and now — thanks to digital filmmaking and fund-raising efforts to support that filmmaking — are able to realize them on the big/small/online screen.
Not totally novel — there’s Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, that involved five cabs in five subsequent stories; Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the classic film statement on New York hacking; and Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, about a man lost in the big city looking for… but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Reyes weaves the stories as skillfully as the driver (Alan Paule) weaves his FX (slang for the minivan used to ply the Metro Manila streets, name taken from the most popular model used: the Toyota Tamaraw FX) through heavy traffic. As passengers board and get off common themes emerge: the heat (the first act of passengers — admittedly my own reflex gesture once seated — is to direct all aircon vents at my face; the second is to glare at the second passenger to sit who promptly adjust the vents to point to his face; and so on); love (three gay men board, two making fun of the third waiting for the love of his life); other passengers (two men discuss a Japanese girl beside them, then learn she speaks Tagalog [but think about it: who, Japanese or otherwise, would be crazy enough to chance public transportation in Manila unless they know Tagalog?]).
Reading a few of the critics who complain of the loose plot you wonder about Syd Field and his three-act paradigm’s stranglehold not just on Hollywood but Filipino filmmaking (or at least film criticism): can’t folks appreciate a film that wants to meander, look around, capture brief samples of life as it is and not as shaped by some artificially imposed dramatic arc? Some of Taxi Driver’s most memorable moments are the random vignettes that play out in Travis Bickle’s back seat, especially one where the director himself played a small but vivid role (“…that isn’t my apartment; my wife is in there and…”); Ophul’s La Ronde passes from one story to another with only the slenderest of connective tissues; Rossellini’s India: Matri Bhumi tells three stories that expand and deepen the implications of what went before — but not in an obvious conventionally dramatic sense.
Reyes keeps it loose and limber and, yes, the stories expand on what goes before. Lou Veloso’s caller (“Two more! Two more in the back seat”) sends Paule’s driver off with a farewell and astrological prophecy (“Today may be the day you’ve been waiting for!”); Sherry Lara’s rosary-clutching old woman spies a bright green cloth (Blouse? Skirt?) beside the driver and glares, suspecting he’s some kind of pervert. Reyes inserts shots of the Manila overpasses and traffic, and included are posters plastered on telephone poles walls and street lamps: “MISSING.” There is a story but Reyes doesn’t use a trowel to lay it out; he drops plot points lightly, knowing the smart viewer will spot the details.
Along the way Reyes touches on additional topics: religious hypocrisy (Lara’s rosary clutcher turns out to have the most colorfully profane mouth this side of Peter Capaldi), racism (the two men comment on the girl’s similarity to an actress in a Japanese bukkake video, then tell Jap jokes), financial hardship (“I need to leave [the country], my son’s going to college,” “My earnings on the road will never be enough”), and isolation (“It’s lonely growing old alone”). What distinguishes Reyes’s film from most others is his handling: deft, and sprinkled with a generous helping of Filipino humor.
Something most folks writing about the film don’t touch upon is how hard confined-space filmmaking can be. Hitchcock pulled it off in Lifeboat but only just; much of the story (by John Steinbeck) felt contrived and unconvincing (Will a bracelet really attract a fish, even with diamonds attached?). He doubled the challenge four years later in Rope, not just keeping his story to a single room but using a single long take (apparently) to film it; hit the jackpot six years later by taking a Cornell Woolrich short story, punching up the comedy and sex appeal (basically Grace Kelly) and calling it Rear Window.
Confined-space filmmaking is difficult to pull off; on a moving vehicle in actual traffic the problems are worse. Wright had the luxury of putting his car on a flatbed truck so that the actor (Tom Hardy, terrific) can concentrate on his acting. Panahi conceivably worked with a smaller budget — and government disapproval on top of everything — but with at most two or three passengers in the back and (from what I can see anyway) less dangerous traffic. Considering the logistics I submit that Reyes did a fine job — allow us a taste of Metro Manila traffic (the flow around Taft Avenue is some of the worse); give us a sense of the claustrophobia and heat; capture the isolation the sheer loneliness of Allen Paule’s driver.
And that I submit is the film’s key subject: loneliness in an overcrowded city — which is also Scorsese’s theme (Reyes pays tribute to the earlier film with a scene set at a carinderia [canteen] where the drivers stop and eat lunch with fellow drivers). You see it clearest in the visual paradox Reyes presents onscreen: all the people crammed in close proximity, only occasionally (briefly temporarily) making contact with each other; maybe the two people who understand each other best are Paule’s driver and Veloso’s caller, mostly in a series of unspoken glances and a pair of flip-flops given as a gift.
And when Paule’s driver finally (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) reveals his full situation (he came back from Saudi to drive around Manila, looking for his missing wife) and said wife (Joy Viado) climbs into the front seat of his FX, the moment is bittersweet, as in Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: it’s been years, they’ve moved on with their lives, much has happened that can’t be undone. Maybe the film’s weakness (or strength, if you like, as a crowd pleaser) is that Reyes can’t leave good enough alone: the incurable romantic in him (and I may be presumptuous in saying this, but if you’re Filipino you’re nothing if not incurably romantic) won’t let the wife go without dropping a few key details (she’s widowed; the guy she’s with [Gardo Verzosa, also funny] is her boyfriend of two years; she has three hours to spare). The finale may be considered ambiguous, with the film fading to black on Joy’s face slack-jawed with astonishment — but us incurable romantics know what happens next, of course. It’s like a law written into all Filipino storytelling.
MNL 143 is available on Cinetropa, a pay-online totally legal Web site.