Mired in controversy before being publicly pulled from the Philippine Independent Film Festival, defiant director Emerson Reyes’ MNL 143 found itself penalised by the country’s primary grant-giving body, the Cinemalaya, over alleged issues with casting. There is very little in the finished product to explain the problems the PIFF might have had with the project, as it does little to push boundaries, upset the balance or greet any form of controversy whatsoever.

After five unsuccessful years spent searching the streets of Manila for the long-lost love of his life, we find FX taxi driver Ramil (Allen Paule) in the midst of tying up loose ends in anticipation of a planned move to Saudi Arabia in order to start anew. Setting off with a full cab from Buendia, he completes his usual circuit as his final few passengers enter and leave both his car and his life. On the way to Fairview, Ramil encounters a surly older woman, an unappreciated mother, a group of students, a bilingual Japanese girl and a couple of aspiring filmmakers as he finally decides to come to terms with his loss and move on with his life. The question is, however, will Mila (Joy Viado) let him?

Effectively plotless, MNL 143 trundles along at an agreeable – if inconsistent – pace, lurching from one group of passengers to the next as they load their baggage into his vehicle – both literal and, more often than not, figurative, too. As such, the success of Reyes’ film is inexorably linked to the quality of the characters and their interactions taking place onscreen at any one time. The results are inevitably mixed,  with some characters making more of an impression than others. Luckily, however, the lesser personalities are more forgettable than insufferable, with plenty of personable passengers helping to compensate for the odd dud note – most notably an old woman who seems utterly impossible to please.

While two arts students recording their every movement and musing for a school project come close to stealing the show with their near limitless energy and enthusiasm (“why do they call it rush hour when everyone drives so slow?”), it is Paule who impresses most, ably carrying the film from start to finish whether demanding fare, bantering with colleagues over lunch or smirking unconsciously over the parallels between his own search for love and that of one of his young charges. Even overcoming the film’s unabashed sentimentality (with one whole scene devoted to Paule weeping to camera whilst waiting in traffic), the actor provides a sympathetic and compelling protagonist in a movie with little else to offer.

Shot with ingenuity and initiative – and acted with a winning charm and honesty by the cast Reyes’ fought (and arguably lost) to keep – MNL 143 is a distinctly likeable and engaging example of true independent cinema. While the plodding pace and simple narrative may leave many wanting, there is enough to enjoy in this unconventional road movie to both warrant and reward patience and perseverance.