The screen is flooded by a deluge of images depicting busy streets. A manic highway surrounded by expensive looking high-rises as well as abject poverty. Welcome to Manila, a cultural melting pot that is as noisy as it is diverse. As music sweeps over the raucous rush hour city Emerson Reyes begins his first feature film MNL-143, a film that is at once fresh and accessible but also culturally significant. Reyes opens a window to his home nation, introducing the Philippines in a snapshot to a wider audience with a film that is humourous, moving and stunning.
Making beautiful use of digital to create a slick veneer over his low budget film, Reyes wields his camera with such skill that questions of quality never arise. Losing government funding for his film after refusing to cast younger more attractive protagonists in his film meant that Reyes had to make the film on an unthinkably small budget with his friends. This meant that to make the film interesting while watching cost meant some form of original or innovative filmmaking and he does not disappoint.
The majority of this film takes place within an FX, a converted jeep that lies somewhere between a taxi and a bus. Inside the crowded FX the camera moves around with apparent ease to capture the minutiae of the cross section of Philippine culture. Inside the cab the bustling streets can be seen from the windows but the noise is filtered out for the most part allowing complete focus on the interior which Reyes fills with vibrant characters. What may seem like compromised camera positions are actually strategically placed to add a voyeuristic layer to the film. Reyes is fully aware of what this style intimates indie filmmaking but laughs it of nonchalantly with the addition of two student filmmakers using all the hallmarks. He is conscious of where the film stands and does not try to avoid the stereotypes but embraces them to give the film a rich cultural feel.
Reyes follows a day in the life of a driver of this FX, Ramil (Alan Paule), who is on a mysterious search for a lost love. On the way he encounters an effervescent collection of people representing many aspects of Filipino society. From the aforementioned students to a busy businesswoman, a manipulative son to his manipulated mother with the pick of the bunch a foul-mouthed older woman from whom you may learn some fantastic new insults.
Though some may find the film a throwaway pleasure, there are some important messages within this film that prove Reyes is not a talent to dismiss. Although the film sags slightly near the end it quickly reignites as the climax unravels. Paule is a revelation as the stony silent FX driver; a particularly emotional scene where nothing is said as he listen to the radio confirms his ability, though the radio music may spoil it for some viewers it is easy to forgive in this instance. MNL-143 heralds the coming of a new talent in Emerson Reyes and what it lacks in lofty ambition is made up for in sentimental modesty. It includes a variety of comments on modern Filipino culture but never ceases to provide an amiable charm, dark humour and schmaltzy optimism.
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