Manila in the Claws of Light: A Proletarian Inferno

On Film / Essays — Jun 12, 2018

Among the six movies Lino Brocka directed between 1974 and ’76, there were three landmark works that changed the course of his career and that of Philippine cinema: Weighed but Found Wanting (1974), Manila in the Claws of Light (1975), and Insiang (1976). They impressed local critics and, in the case of the last two films, brought the director international acclaim. The triptych was part of the outcome of Brocka’s attempts at rekindling his passion for filmmaking. He had begun making commercial movies in 1970, after proving his mettle in theater and television. He reaped box-office success and prestigious awards for several melodramas and romances and a historical action film. Nine pictures and two years into his career, however, a row with a producer and a couple of rushed, poorly made movies prompted Brocka to go on a self-imposed hiatus. Upon returning two years after that, he vowed to create films that were more substantive and relevant to the national experience. “There’s too much fantasy in the movies, too much escapism,” he said. “Philippine films are wanting in content; they need more realism.” Light, popular fare had always sustained domestic filmmaking in the Philippines, but the studio system that had ruled the industry since the thirties had gone into decline by the early sixties, when its staples—dramas, comedies, adventures, and musicals influenced by Hollywood cinema and Spanish operettas called zarzuelas—began to lose ground to low-budget spectacles and racy exploitation films from independent producers. 

Brocka’s desire for change reflected the spirit of the times. President Ferdinand Marcos had imposed martial law in 1972, in a bid to remain in power indefinitely and amass a personal fortune, and was met by fierce resistance—including from middle-class youth inspired by antiestablishment and antiwar uprisings in the West. Marcos had always regarded cinema, an immensely popular medium in his country, as a political battleground. During his successful first run for president, a major Philippine studio released a biopic that helped him get elected by mythologizing him as a man chosen by fate to become a brilliant lawyer and politician. Campaigning for his second term, his supporters bankrolled a movie about his wartime exploits. During martial law (1972–81), censors banned films, meddled with scripts, and destroyed the negatives of material they deemed offensive. Censorship hindered direct representation of the political upheaval that despotism had unleashed. It narrowed the range of films that could be released, thus encouraging the escapist movie trends that Brocka abhorred—car chases, kung-fu fighting, cowboys. 

Weighed but Found Wanting, the director’s return to filmmaking, follows a young man’s coming-of-age in a community bound by superstition and prejudice. The young hero experiences first love and heartbreak, befriends outcasts, comes to comprehend the privilege his class grants him, and stands up against his sexist father. The film recalls the social criticism found in Hollywood small-town melodramas of the fifties, as well as in Philippine prestige films about the hardships of farmers and the country’s troubles after World War II, combined with the observational naturalism of sixties European art cinema. The effect wowed viewers. Bucking Philippine cinema’s preference for star-driven movies, the director had cast an unknown seventeen-year-old actor (Christopher De Leon) in the lead role. Despite that, Weighed but Found Wanting enjoyed box-office success, proving that quality films with socially relevant themes could turn a profit. And Brocka’s decision to steer clear of overt political content—except for two passing references to a martial-law-era curfew—spared his film from censorship. 

Brocka’s comeback picture impressed Mike De Leon, himself a budding filmmaker, whose family owned LVN, one of four major Philippine studios of the postwar era. De Leon offered Brocka the resources to make a film based on Sa mga kuko ng liwanag (In the Claws of Light), a social-realist novel by Edgardo Reyes that had been serialized by a mass-market literary magazine in the late sixties. De Leon acted as producer and cinematographer on the adaptation. Like Weighed but Found Wanting, Manila centers on a young male protagonist played by a virtual unknown—in this case, Rafael “Bembol” Roco Jr., working alongside seasoned film players as well as actors from the politically progressive theater company where the director had been working since 1967. A young village fisherman named Julio Madiaga follows his girlfriend, Ligaya Paraiso (Hilda Koronel), to Manila, where she has gone missing shortly after being recruited into domestic service. Months pass before Julio stumbles on Ligaya outside a church. A survivor of forced prostitution, she is now the kept woman of a Chinese business owner named Chua Tek, or Ah Tek, who still treats her like a prisoner despite the fact that she has just borne him a daughter. Julio persuades Ligaya to attempt an escape, despite her warning that Ah Tek has threatened to kill her if she tries to flee. She misses their appointed meeting time. The last act in particular, with its rousing plot turns and breathtaking images, bears out Manila’s international reputation as one of the finest melodramas in Asian cinema.

Manila functions both as stylized reportage on the state of the city during the Marcos era and as a universal tale of life and death in a metropolis.”

The story Brocka is actually telling through his urban fable of star-crossed lovers is a sociopolitical one, about the plight of Manila’s expendable working class. Julio’s quest cuts a path through the various contemporary guises of slavery and the dire conditions in Manila’s hovels, among other pressing indications of social inequity. The film’s most moving sequences involve the exploitation and alienation of labor under capitalism. To stay in the city as he searches for Ligaya, Julio takes a job as a menial laborer at construction sites. He also turns to sex work in a moment of desperation. Brocka details Julio’s exploitation in both trades. The foreman at one site pockets more than a third of Julio’s wages, leaving him with barely enough to buy food, much less to secure shelter, and the conditions at the sites are hazardous, with no hard hats or safety harnesses for the workers. Julio’s stint at the male brothel is far more lucrative than the construction work, but his clients’ demands distress him. His only respite from the alienation is the camaraderie of his fellow workers. He discovers that he can count on his friends to share their meager provisions when he has nothing to eat, to open their homes to him, to loan him money. Julio learns a valuable lesson about hope from the solidarity of workers and the lower classes.

Manila’s penetrating depictions of peonage and sex work draw from the experiences of the novel’s author. Edgardo Reyes spent years working at construction sites and serving as a gofer for a Chinatown brothel. The film also benefits from Reyes’s lucid account of the hierarchies that operate within developing nations’ rapacious economies. At the bottom of the heap—even lower than wage laborers like Julio—are the subalterns, the beggars as well as the victims of human trafficking. Above Julio are middle-class folks, who exploit the underclass with impunity. They include the foreman Balajadia and Mrs. Cruz, the woman who lured Ligaya to the city and sold her to a brothel. Small-time capitalists such as Ah Tek and the gay brothel owner Cesar occupy a higher social station than the petty bourgeois. The oligarchs, too high up to be visible to the underclass, fittingly appear in the film only by proxy. Throughout, images of neon lights and commercial signage suggest the culpability of such plutocrats and global capitalists for the hardscrabble existence of Manila’s underclass. A sign at the construction site where Julio works bears the name “La Madrid,” invoking the capital of the first Western nation to turn Filipinos into vassals. When Julio enters the flesh trade, neon signs for Japanese electronics firms can be seen burning in the night sky.    

As with many films set in major cities, in Manila in the Claws of Light the Philippine capital is more than a visually appealing or symbolic backdrop. The metropolis is itself the subject of various narratives embedded within Brocka’s film, including a portrayal of its social geography. Manila opens with black-and-white footage of the city’s Chinese quarter stirring to life. At the crossing of the district’s most iconic thoroughfares, Julio spends hours observing Ah Tek’s home for signs of Ligaya. He soon realizes that Chinatown, apart from being a business haven, is also a cesspool of prostitution. The film’s unflattering portrayal of the ethnic enclave and especially its dwellers triggered charges of anti-Chinese racism from reviewers and the Chinese Filipino community. While Manila highlights well-known facts about the district, its stereotypical characterization of Ah Tek and his fellow Chinese people remains a problematic element of the film. 

Besides Chinatown, Manila explores the heaving slums of the Tondo foreshore area, showing the housing shortage among the urban poor and the hellish living conditions of the underclass. Midway through the film, Julio is kicked off a construction site, and his fellow peon Atong takes him in. Atong and his family live in a squatter’s area along a polluted canal called Sunog-Apog, a name that means “burnt lime.” Later in the film, a fire reduces the settlement to smoldering debris. 

In a controversial episode, the film also tracks Manila’s gay haunts. Brocka asked screenwriter Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr. to create the subplot, not found in Reyes’s novel, depicting Julio’s recourse to prostitution. The brothel scene was filmed at a gay “massage parlor” on the edge of Chinatown and featured real-life pimps and male sex workers in bit roles. Concerns about the running time led producers to abbreviate this episode before the film’s international release. In Manila’s original theatrical version, the sequence included a scene at a gay bar, some cruising and hustling inside a movie theater, and glimpses of a deepening friendship between Julio and Bobby, the guy who persuades him to try sex work. Bobby becomes infatuated with Julio and, in a moment of tenderness, steals a kiss from him. Julio punches Bobby and, driven by homophobia, ends his stint at the brothel. Had this last scene been retained, it might have established more clearly why Julio quits the lucrative sex work and settles for starvation wages as a peon. The excised scenes—with their rare visual documentation of the gay demimonde—were never restored to the film.

Brocka embeds in his film about Manila the political upheavals of the Philippines in the seventies, with shots of posters and placards bearing slogans like “Long Live the Workers!” and “Down with Imperialism and Fascism” (referring to American support of the Marcos dictatorship), or an image of a raised fist and the initials of the radical organization Kabataang Makabayan (Nationalist Youth). Mindful of the dictatorship’s paranoia about subversive content in movies, Brocka downplayed the film’s images of social unrest as mere “background” that served to set the plot in the period before the dictatorship, not in the martial-law era itself. This disclaimer falters in light of the fact that, although Marcos had outlawed protests, they had only grown more fervent in response to his attempts to forge the so-called New Society. The political slogans and grim social conditions Brocka attributes to the year 1970 still prevailed when the film opened in 1975, under martial law. Marcos had promised to use his powers to uplift the “poorest of the working people,” but the Filipino underclass only became poorer and more restive during his tenure. Fortunately, for whatever reason, Brocka’s images of crippling poverty and political resistance did not bother the censors, who approved the film without cuts. 

 

The brilliance of Manila in the Claws of Light lies partly in its multiple tensions. First, gritty realism occurs alongside poised stylization. De Leon’s artful cinematography unfolds in jarring contrast to the city’s ugliest sights. His panoramic shots and deep-space compositions emphasize the breadth, congestion, and horrid majesty of sprawling shantytowns. Tension also suffuses the sound design, in which two kinds of soundscape overlap: chatter and urban din on the one hand and, on the other, a musical score steeped in fantasy and emotion. And there is a tension within Julio’s point of view, between exteriority and inwardness. Because Julio is deliriously hungry, exhausted, terrified, and hopeful, the harshness and beauty of Manila as he sees it clash and blend in unpredictable ways. Suspending itself between social exposé and parable, Manila functions both as stylized reportage on the state of the city during the Marcos era and as a universal tale of life and death in a metropolis. It juxtaposes naturalistic depictions of proletarian life with moments of dreamy lyricism—for example, Julio’s recollections of Ligaya in their lost paradise, a seaside village bathed in golden sunshine. The principal characters even have allegorical names: Julio Madiaga translates as “Julius Patience,” Ligaya Paraiso means “Joyful Paradise,” and Ah Tek sounds like “atik,” Filipino slang for “money.”

The film’s plot, despite its meandering exposition and confusing flashbacks, holds together elegant patterns. Julio’s descent into Manila’s proletarian inferno, for instance, proceeds in three passages, in each of which he is guided by a male friend: Atong at the construction site, Bobby in the red-light district, and Pol in Chinatown. Visual and sound motifs ripple throughout the narrative. Western pop songs portend death in various scenes. In contrast, the movie elaborates its titular metaphor—fatal brightness—solely through visual motifs, as when the glare in a funeral parlor emphasizes the pallor of the dead, or when the neon lights of Rizal Avenue, Manila’s historic entertainment district, conjure the dream of social mobility but also point the way to ruin. 

Manila reaped numerous awards and fared well at the box office during its two domestic theatrical engagements. It enjoyed a commercial run in France and television broadcast in the United Kingdom (before Brocka entered the scene, it was rare for Philippine art-house pictures to be shown in Europe). Cinephiles in the West tend to favor the melodrama Insiang over Manila. The former is perhaps more tautly structured and more picturesque than the latter. But in Brocka’s film-obsessed country, Manila in the Claws of Light is widely regarded as his magnum opus.