The controversial film that almost brought Cinemalaya to its knees continues to attract new audiences outside of the celebrated independent film festival that disqualified it last February.
“MNL 143” stirred a hornet’s nest of sorts when its director Emerson Reyes refused to heed the suggestion by Cinemalaya monitoring committee head Robbie Tan to change the casting of lead stars Alan Paule and Joy Viado who played former lovers in the film.
In earlier news reports, Reyes said he received a disqualification letter from Cinemalaya Competition chairperson Laurice Guillen Feleo stating that the organizing committee of the festival cited his original cast as “not suitable for the material.”
As news of the disqualification became public and reached scandalous proportions, the leadership of Cinemalaya took a hit in the fallout of the controversy with the reported resignations of Tan, who cited the need to attend to his regular business, and festival director Nestor Jardin, who nevertheless still delivered the opening speech during the filmfest’s awarding ceremonies last July 29.
In a recent interview with InterAksyon, both Reyes and producer Nestor Abrogena discussed how they still managed to make “MNL 143” without Cinemalaya’s support.
“After being disqualified from the Cinemalaya festival, it was a big blow to our financial plans since the funding was supposedly intended to fuel the immediate expenses for the logistics of the shoots. Close friends, however, were there to lend us money to fund the first few days of the production,” Abrogena recalled.
Also coming to the rescue of “MNL 143” was Artiste Connect, described in its Facebook page as “a funding platform for talented local artists to support them on their struggle to finance the production of their projects.”
“Artiste Connect made it possible for us to have one platform for our friends to pledge/donate cash to fund our film. We also did fundraising concert/gigs and sold DVDs of Emerson’s short films,” Abrogena continued.
“MNL 143″ is a black comedy about a former overseas Filipino worker (Paule) who now drives his own FX cab. While plying his daily route, he encounters a hodge podge of interesting characters as he pines for a long lost love (Viado).
Reyes said much of the film’s pedestrian humor is inspired by Tito, Vic and Joey.
“I grew up watching from everything and anything on TV and cinemas. Among my influences as director are Francois Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar, Wong Kar Wai, Richard Linklater, Michel Gondry, Mike De Leon, Lino Brocka, Peque Gallaga, Brillante Mendoza, Khavn de la Cruz, and John Torres,” he cited.
After finishing “MNL 143”, however, Reyes realized that those who influenced him are none of the above filmmakers he named.
“They are actually the filmmakers I worked with in the film. My assistant director in ‘MNL 143,’ Jet Leyco who just won at the recent Jeonju International Film Festival helped me become a better director. My cinematographer, Neil Brion, guided me to capture better images in the film.
“My film editor, Chuck Gutierrez, showed me a lot of ways to improve the original treatment I have in mind. The people I collaborated with for ‘MNL 143′, the producers Dan Gil, Babyruth Villarama, Rene Durian and Nestor Abrogena made the film even better than I have envisioned.”
And of course, there were the actors themselves that gave life to the characters he wrote. Casting Alan Paule, a character actor who is still known as the lead star of Lino Brocka’s “Macho Dancer”, was the easiest part.
“Emerson wrote the script with Kuya Alan as his character peg,” Abrogena revealed. “The ensemble which also included Gardo Versoza, Lou Veloso, Ramon Bautista, Sherry Lara and Earl Ignacio was 95 percent of the actors we originally lined up. The crew and other non-actor friends filled up the rest.”
As for the character eventually played by Joy Viado, Abrogena said that was the tricky part. “Mila’s character was the hardest to peg, given Direk’s specification, and after the brainstorming of the production, Joy Viado’s name came up and everyone unanimously agreed that she’s the perfect actor to play the part.”
Cinemalaya, of course, disagreed and the rest eventually became independent cinema history. Given Reyes’ previous success in the filmfest’s Short Film category when his “Walang Katapusang Kwarto” won Best Film, Best Screenplay and the Audience Choice Award in the Short Film category last year, he never thought he would encounter any problems with “MNL 143”.
“When we decided to join Cinemalaya, Emerson and I would joke about aiming for the Audience Choice Award only, because of the cash prize, so we can pay for our apartment rent. But seriously we just wanted to have a fun, lighthearted film that everyone can relate to; that at the end of the screening everyone will feel better after watching it,” Abrogena said.
Instead, the film ended up being appreciated elsewhere, originally as an exhibition film in the Philippine New Wave Program of the 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival where it was warmly received.
“It was fantastic. It felt really nice when people approached me after screenings and told me about their favorite characters in the film,” Reyes beamed. “They loved the acting, especially Alan Paule’s performance. A British national told me that it’s his first time to watch a Filipino film, and after watching ‘MNL 143,’ he’s really excited to see more.”
The same warm reception greeted Reyes during its Philippine premiere last July days before the Cinemalaya 2012 film festival opened.
Although some of the film’s reviews qualified its praise for the filmmaker’s perseverance in defying the odds more than the finished product itself, the fact that “MNL 143” was even made is something that both director and producer are very proud of.
“As one of his producers, what was most important for me was that Direk Emerson finished ‘MNL 143’ in spite of what happened, and was able to exercise his prerogative on casting choices and story development without any intervention from external forces, which made the spirit of independent filmmaking alive,” Abrogena declared.
“I’m writing new material now,” Reyes announced. “But as of the moment, our focus is to screen ‘MNL 143’ in as many venues as possible.”
“MNL 143” is scheduled to be screened at UP Cine Adarna on August 14, SM Lipa Cinema 4 on August 18, UP Los Baños on August 21 and at the Loyola Film Circle of Ateneo De Manila University on August 31.