Much of the buzz around MNL 143 concerns the controversy it went through as a Cinemalaya film. It certainly elevated the stature of the film, making it a symbol of true artistic independence among the film community. But the film certainly didn’t have that ambition. It is just a simple little story of an FX driver taking passengers while looking for the woman he loves. The controversies are distant now, and the film ought to be judged on its own merits. As it turns out, it’s a sometimes-lovely film that suffers from a lack of urgency. It can be pleasant ride, but it isn’t always interesting.
For the past few years, Ramil (Allen Paule) has been driving an FX taxi in the hopes of somehow finding a love he lost years ago. Now, it is his final day in Manila before having to leave to become an OFW. He goes about his day as normal, taking passengers and becoming witness to their various stories. Over the course of the morning, he deals with irate passengers, a breaking down vehicle, and the fading hope that he’ll see the woman he loves ever again.
There’s a palpable lack of narrative momentum in the film. It’s happy to meander through the story, as slight as it is, and take slight detours into the lives of the other characters. The film lives on these incidental details, on overheard bits of conversation and glimpses at text messages. In its own, quite intriguing way, the movie captures the experience of commuting in Manila. It accurately depicts the tyranny of proximity; the way stories become communal in tight spaces, no matter how personal the details.
It’s certainly an interesting experiment, but it doesn’t always make for compelling viewing. As it is in real life, some stories are more interesting than others. The difference is, inside a movie theater, you can’t just tune that out. And because this is a movie, the need for proper exposition tends to make a lot of dialogue sound very unnatural. The film’s most powerful and daring moments actually exist outside of this motif. There is a segment in the middle of this film that occurs in a moment when Ramil has no passengers, and the scene wordlessly conveys the years of remorse that led up to this day. Ramil’s story is really worth telling, and the nature of the film kind of gets in the way.
Back when the film was under the Cinemalaya banner, much of the controversy surrounding it centered on the choice of actors. It all seems a little silly now. Allen Paule is certainly the right actor for this job, as is Joy Viado. As Ramil, Paule displays an abundance of history, an entire life of choices that helps explain exactly who he is, and what this day means to him. He is exactly what this movie needs. There other parts in the movie are handled with varying levels of skill. On the whole, however, the acting is fine.
MNL 143 is similarly fine. It’s sweet enough, and its experiment is a worthy one, even if didn’t quite work out. At the very least, its heart is clearly in the right place, the film searching beyond the easy conventions of romantic movies to find its own way of telling a story about love. And in a couple of amazingly lucid moments, it offers a glimpse at something intangible; a love far stronger than words can convey. The journey isn’t quite worth the destination, but it might be worth taking all the same.