Thursday, May 25, 2017

MNL 143 (Emerson Reyes, 2012)

Trip to Quiapo

You'd think Emerson Reyes' MNL 143took inspiration from Jafar Panahi's Taxi, or Steven Knight's Locke--both very good films that largely take place inside a vehicle--and you'd be wrong; Reyes' 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 fundraising efforts to support that filmmaking--is able to realize them on the big/small/online screen.

*(The title is presumably both a license plate number and airport code for the depicted city)

Not totally novel--there's Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth, though that involved five vehicles in five cities involved in five subsequent stories; Scorsese's Taxi Driver, the definitive film statement on New York cabbies; 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 Ramil (Alan Paule) weaves his FX (slang for the minivan used to ply the Metro Manila streets, taken from the most popular model used: the Toyota Tamaraw FX) through heavy traffic. As passengers board and step off common themes emerge: the heat (first act of passengers--admittedly my own reflex gesture once seated--is to direct all aircon vents at my face; 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 climb in, two making fun of a third, who's pining); other passengers (two men discuss a Japanese girl beside them, only to find out 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 glimpses of life as it is and not as shaped by some artificially imposed narrative arc? Some of Taxi Driver's most memorable moments are the random vignettes that play out in Travis Bickle's back seat, especially where the director himself played a small but vivid role ("That's my wife. But that's not my apartment."); Ophul's La Ronde passes from one story to another with only the slenderest of connective tissues; Roberto 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 sprinkles a few clues: Lou Veloso's caller ("Two more! Two more in the back seat") sends Ramil off with a farewell and astrological prophecy ("Today may be the day you've been waiting for!"). Sherry Lara's rosary-clutching elder spies a bright green cloth (Woman's blouse? Skirt?) beside the driver and glares, suspecting he's some kind of pervert. Reyes inserts shots of the Manila overpasses and traffic, and you notice posters plastered on telephone poles walls and street lamps with the word writ large: "MISSING." There is a story but Reyes doesn't use a trowel to lay it out; he drops plot points lightly, trusting the viewer to 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 and misogyny (the two men chuckle on the Japanese girl's similarity to an actress in a bukkake video), financial hardship ("I need to leave (the country), my son's going to college" "My earnings on the road will never be enough"), isolation ("It's lonely growing old alone"). What distinguishes Reyes' film from most others is his handling: deft, sprinkled with a generous helping of Filipino humor. 

Something most folks writing about the film don't touch upon is how difficult confined-space filmmaking can be. Hitchcock pulled it off in Lifeboat but only just; much of the story (by John Steinbeck, liberally re-written) felt contrived and unconvincing (Will a bracelet really attract a fish, even with diamonds attached? Can a Nazi U-boat captain be so fiendishly all-around competent?). 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 with a Cornell Woolrich short story--the humor punched up the sex appeal (thanks mostly to Grace Kelly) sizzling--retitled Rear Window.

Confined-space filmmaking is difficult to pull off; on a moving vehicle in actual traffic the problems are even 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 worked with a possibly smaller budget--and government disapproval on top of everything--but with at most two or three passengers in the back seat and (from what I can see through the car windows) less dangerous traffic. Considering the logistics I submit that Reyes did a fine job--allow us a taste of Metro Manila congestion (the flow around Taft Avenue is some of the worse); give us a sense of the claustrophobia and swelter; 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 was also Scorsese's theme (Reyes pays tribute to the earlier film with a scene set at a streetside carinderia (canteen) where the drivers stop and eat 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 Ramil and Veloso's caller, mostly in a series of unspoken glances a la Howard Hawks, 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--like Julio Madiaga in Brocka's Maynila--came to Manila to look for his beloved) and said wife Mila (Joy Viado) unwittingly climbs into the front seat of his vehicle, the moment is as 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 crowd pleasers) is that Reyes can't leave well 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 doesn't quite know if she loves the man). The finale might be called ambiguous, with the film fading to black on Joy's slackjawed-with-astonishment face--but we know what happens next of course; it's like a law written into nearly all Filipino narratives, a birthright if you like growing up in this hopelessly sentimental*** country. 

**(since appropriated--only half-joking here--by last year's La La Land)

***(To paraphrase a line from possibly my favorite little-seen Spanish film: "Most girls when they first meet me call me sentimental. After a while they just call me mental.")

Film available in Cinetropa with English subtitles

First published in Businessworld 5.18.17

No comments: