My Introduction to the Cinema of the Philippines: MNL 143 and Mondomanila

This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival really seems to have put the emphasis on the International.  With 53 different countries represented it really is a great chance to watch films from countries whose film scene you are entirely unfamiliar with.

This was the case with me and the Philippines.  And given the fact there were so many showing as part of the Philippine New Wave strand of the festival, I thought this would be a great chance to venture into the 12th most populated country in the world.

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The first of the two films I chose to see was MNL 143.  The title comes from a registration plate in Manila, the country’s capital.  The main character, Ramil, drives a taxi of sorts.  I say of sorts, since commuters hop on and off as they please.  So we’re left with the space of a taxi with the rules of a bus.

The film handles a huge number of threads, with each customer on Ramil’s FX carrying their own storyline, sometimes for just a few minutes as they chat with the person next to them, sometimes for the duration of the journey, as is the case with one elderly lady who keeps shouting at Ramil every time he brakes suddenly to negotiate Manila’s hectic roads.

The exchanges that take place are mainly light-hearted, but some carry a more emotional punch, such as a lady who keeps receiving text messages from her unappreciative son.  The common thread throughout is Ramil, who is about to head back to Saudi Arabia having search for a former lover for the past five years; her green dress and faded photograph a constant presence next to him.

Thematically the many exchanges that pepper the film are not that linked.  Rather, they paint a picture of a modern sprawling city with its busy inhabitants trying to balance work, life, money, love and family.  

Some scenes may surprise Western viewers.  Three gay characters jump on the taxi and two of them dramatically tease the other about falling in love so easily.  The other characters, especially Ramil, seem relaxed and at ease around those who are so open about their homosexuality.  We often think of developing nations as being a lot more backward than the West in their views of such things, although it is unclear whether this is the director, Emerson Reyes, making a statement about homosexuality or whether this reflects the actual attitude of the majority of Manila’s inhabitants.

As a film, MNL 143 succeeds on pretty much every level.  Its setting on a commute will be familiar to anyone who has ever used public transport and loves to overhear the weird and wonderful conversations people have.  Its narrative choices feel fresh and original, allowing its central character of Ramil to grow and develop naturally, while still making statements about so many other issues along the way.  Finally, the use of humour through out the film sets it apart from a lot of independent cinema which can take itself far too seriously.  

As such, MNL 143 is a film I could safely recommend to anyone who is prepared to follow a meandering central story through some strange and delightful tangents.  

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The second film I watched from the Philippine New Wave strand was Mondomanila, or: How I Fixed My Hair after a Rather Long Journey.  A much more punky, dirty look at the poorest slums in Manila.  

The film opens with cartoon drawings of the movie’s many characters with giant genitalia and other equally ‘mature’ features.  This follows an introduction the characters through subtitles, and key information (think Top Trumps), while the mainly teenage characters talk about the oh so grown up topics of getting high and masturbating.

It was at this point I almost gave up on the film and thought of a thousand other things that would be more interesting.  However, I stayed with it for a few reasons.  

The main character, Tony, is introduced through a speech to camera about how unfair the world is, how the government is doing his community wrong, and how they don’t care about people like him.  It’s a theme other characters come back to throughout the film, although none as articulately as Tony.

As the film starts to find its feet and we see Tony getting revenge on behave of his brother; his mother dealing with a loan shark; and Tony’s gay friend Naty trying to get his father to accept his sexuality, it became a lot more watchable.  

The themes remain dark and gritty, and certainly not for the faint hearted.  In fact, in some ways it makes EIFF’s Opening Gala Film Killer Joe look mild and mainstream.  

Nevertheless, there was a strange way the dark, gritty and daring themes were reflected in the dark, gritty and daring filmmaking choices director, Khavn, makes throughout the film.

Some scenes are shot using just stills every half second or so as the protagonists plot revenge on the film’s villain (an American, in the film’s most unveiled political statement).  Others are shot via CCTV angles, or in black and white; while the film’s final scene is a Bollywood style musical set piece.  

It leaves you with the sense that this is the director who can and will try anything to make a creative, artistic and original piece of work.  And Mondomanila is certainly that.  It reminds me of early Tarintino or Godard; directors who know all the rules of cinema and know precisely how to break them.  Mondomanila is not a perfect movie by any means, but it is certainly an interesting and unique one you won’t forget in a hurry.

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