Emerson Reyes could be considered as an indie filmmaker who thinks forward and makes do of what is available. His ambitions are set by the parameters he is given, though this does not mean that he can’t think bigger. His earlier short, Walang Katapusang Kuwarto, uses a single setting, a mere room, where two lovers indulge in eavesdropping galore to give us stories not limited to the confines of setting. Reyes does that again with MNL 143, a documentation on the goings-on of a passenger FX. While the location of travel stretches from Manila to Quezon City, its setting is mostly confined to the inside of a taxi where different passengers come and go. Who knows, his next film might be set inside an elevator while the operator goes up and down the floors. Or how about a man trapped inside a coffin? Reyes builds the premise of his stories considering at the outset the financial aspects to them, so that he mines both the filmmaker’s creativity and producer’s hat. Because the milieu he sets is limiting, his objective becomes how to surmount it and how to send the story flying past the physical boundary. Thus as viewers, we are placed in a position where we need to evaluate his films against how he fares in prevailing the limitations of the milieu.
Walang Katapusang Kuwarto succeeds because Reyes takes us as voyeurs peering into a privacy we should not even be privileged to witness. The close-up shots accentuate the intimacy of place, and of the lovers, both of them naked under the blanket, still in bliss after sex. We hear their unguarded thoughts too, thus our proximity to them as voyeurs is not just limited to how close we get to their bodies. Kuwarto has rawness of an unmanufactured film. It seems unplanned – the better for it – and feels organic and fresh. And Reyes’ grasp of the material is steady, sure of what he is doing.
While we traverse Taft Avenue on our way to Fairview in Reyes’ debut full-length film, MNL 143, we are introduced to a random of passengers, whose composite we can not make of. Probably because they are just that, random. We can segregate them according to their purpose instead. The first group comprises the passengers who ride in for a portraiture of the metropolis (the cellphone thief, the students going to school, the housewife). The second group includes those who show the idiosyncrasies of the passengers (the whiner, the guy who regularly checks the aircon, the dosser at the back). And the last group covers those who supplement the driver’s predicament (the three queens who give us a short discourse on what is true love – if-you’re-meant-to-be-you’ll-end-up-together-in-the-end-come-what-may blah blah). And yet there are still some who don’t belong to these clusters. In other words, the passengers are so varied, we become lost as to what is Reyes’ definitive purpose for them. Does he just randomly pluck them out from a hundred lot of commuters bound for Philcoa? It would have worked better as a documentary, where scripting is the least of its concern. That there is a pre-selection of roles and the actors who play them defies the very essence of randomness and heterogeneity it is trying to pass off for.
What I am thinking of is Reyes caring less for the commuters’ composition and opting instead for an entirely separate goal: toy around an insider-vs-outsider shift of standpoint. He takes Ramil, the driver, as the perspective from which the passengers’ stories are heard, making Ramil a plain observer. This changes when one passenger rides in and pulls him in from the outside, so that now he becomes an insider, finally. Not the hearer of the story but the story itself. From third person to first person.
The downside to this is that the mini-stories preceding the main story are so unrelated and diverse they don’t amount to a cumulative feel beside each other or on top of one another. As the passengers alight, their stories cling with them out, putting the momentum back to zero again. In other word, they don’t build up to a qualifiable height for which the main story to stand on and fly off from.
This seems to be the persistent mode of the film. It remains flat and it relegates us to peripheries, never engaging us. The passengers’ stories, fleeting and inconsequential, are mere tips of the icebergs to really matter to us. When Ramil cries upon hearing a love song ballad from a radio, we don’t feel his anguish. Because the film never lets us in to his story. Only to his predicament that he is looking for his former girlfriend for five years now. We need something more concrete to be empathetic.
This is a bit of a letdown especially that there are still traces of the Kuwarto goodness sprinkled throughout, if far-between. There is a wit to the way Reyes handled a sequence where a La Salle lass presumes her fare is being paid for by a strange schoolmate. That the schoolmate quickly resolves to grab her out of the spot is not only gentlemanly of him but also mature of Reyes. And how can we pass up Reyes’ treatment of spaces and divisions! Throughout the trip, the passenger’s seat beside the driver, usually good for two, is only taken by one passenger at a time, putting a good visible space between them. Then Gardo Versosa and Joy Viado ride in, both occupying it fully for the first time. Joy is the former love the driver has been searching for and Gardo, Joy’s current flame, is positioned between them so that he assumes a barrier center, dividing them, old lovers, apart, thus manifesting physically the true status of their severed relationship. Thus the space which was empty before Gardo took it is now served its purpose, aesthetically. When the obstruction, Gardo, gets out, confrontation ensues. Or is it a chance at a reconciliation restored? Reyes gets it right, and intelligently. Scenes, these, which remind us of the potentials Reyes displayed in Kuwarto. Only very spare here.
MNL 143 could have been a smoother ride had Reyes been more careful in selecting the commuters he takes in his FX. As is, the composite is so generic that we can take another FX with another set of commuters and the effect of the former lovers’ reunion would still be the same, reducing the role of the commuters – us, hey we ride along with them to Fairview! – as just that, decorations.