gtg: get the guillotine brb: beheading ruthless bourbons ttyl: the terror yields liberty lmao: louis, marie, and oppressors omg: obviously marats gone rofl: revolution of France lives wtf: where’s the fertentity swag: secretly we assassinate Girondists
“I was hungry at first, but then, after a while, I got used to it, I guess. And I liked having the extra time to study. And the more I thought about it, the more I figured.. if I don’t need lunch, maybe I don’t need breakfast or dinner, either. And then, it just kind of became a new project for me, you know, seeing how long I could go without eating any food. Not eating was all I thought about. I didn’t care about the fact that I didn’t have any friends. All I cared about was making it through another day without eating.”
Hell in the Daytime: Lino Brocka’s MANILA IN THE CLAWS OF LIGHT (‘75) by Thomas Davant
I’m not sure—or at least, can’t think at the moment—of a film in which the title so chillingly sums up its story and atmosphere than MANILA IN THE CLAWS OF LIGHT (‘75). “Atmosphere” is a word that gets tossed around a lot when talking about books and movies, but sometimes it’s more readily believable and palpable than character. The title conjures up a city that’s already entwined in a mysterious haze of otherworldliness, a brutal history of colonialism and the tragedy of poverty and corruption. An image search of modern Manila reveals a mix-match of gorgeous cathedrals once enormous and looming but now dwarfed by glass high-rises and skyscrapers, of shanty towns spread out for miles around the city center in a Kandinsky painting of multi-colored tin roofs. One wonders how much the city has changed since the shooting of Lino Brocka’s film, which preserves a time and place so perfectly.
A distant cousin to the Australian classic WAKE IN FRIGHT (‘71)—which finds a schoolteacher en route to sex, sand and sun in Sydney but instead gets caught up in the boozing, brawling and brutalizing of kangaroos in a tiny desert town—Brocka’s work is likewise a hellish journey into the soul of a man as it undergoes an intense, dramatic transformation brought on by the immediate environment. Julio, a young fisherman (played with an unwavering stare of sadness by Bembol Roco) from a poor coastal town, travels to Manila in pursuit of the love of his life, a childhood friend taken by a mysterious woman who promises her family that a good job and riches await in the big city. We know what actually awaits because we’ve heard the stories and read the headlines.
The film opens a few weeks into his time in Manila. In the urban-scape, he quickly loses his money and bounces job sites in search of work. The workers are all kind to young Julio and offer advice. The overseer, with a belly bulging, arm over clipboard and eyes hidden behind sunglasses, is a real bastard. But that’s just the way it goes. He’s a penny-pincher and the way society maintains the gap between the well-off and the poor is just a hard fact of life. For the workers who break their backs 10 hours a day, it’s an “us against them” situation, as Julio learns. The city is only an enjoyable place if you have the money; if you don’t, it’s a hungry inferno. I’m reminded suddenly of a quote from WITHNAIL AND I (‘87): “Free to those that can afford it, very expensive to those that can’t.”
Brocka was one of the great Filipino filmmakers, a maverick in his nation and a gift to world cinema. As a man with such cultural sway in his country, his felt a personal responsibility to turn a lens on the problems facing the Philippines. Poverty, corruption and the treatment of women and homosexuals were common issues addressed over a prolific career cut short by a car crash in the early 90s.
Cinematographer Mike De Leon (who would become a director of his own prestige) shoots his hometown of Manila from across congested streets, through sweaty crowds and out upper story windows. The city pushes down on the young man as he waits outside the supposed address of his love with the patience of a monk. Men walk past offering underage girls black market goods. He continues to wait. His stomach grumbles.
Skin beaded with sweat, dirt and grime, muscles aching under the weight of ground-stone bashed to bits by sledgehammers and eyes straining in that bright white light litter the picture and provide a visual for anguish, jealousy and resentment. Brocka took his crew to the thick of the shanty towns, preferring non-professionals for their lack of self-consciousness before the camera.
Julio takes solace in the nighttime. There’s a strange comfort and anonymity in the darkness. In those moments, he can see silhouettes in the window—is that her?—but in the daylight the glass reflects the building across the street. For is there anything more dehumanizing than the middle of the day when you’re unemployed and searching for work? It costs money to breathe. You have everything going out and nothing coming in.
The word “claws” seems ready to conjure images of darkness. Things that snatch and grab and tear lurk in the shadows. But Manila has it all out in the sunshine. There’s nothing more terrifying than a harsh, bright light, shining down, illuminating everything and revealing nothing.
Brocka intersperses Julio’s journey with quick flashes of his past, a vermillion sun shimmering above the ocean and Ligaya’s face framed in the fading light of summer dusk. Julio stares at the grimy pavement of the city, clinging to his memories. Manila reaches for all he believes is good and worth preserving; but the city will eventually hook its claws. The terror of the film is in how one loses oneself in the pursuit of a goal that is forever out of reach, a Sisyphean nightmare.
This restoration by the World Cinema Foundation is stellar, and title cards explain the painstaking steps and love that goes into such a process. The resulting image is thick with weight, lush with color and ultimately satisfying to the eyes.
For those hooked by Brocka’s work, FilmStruck also offers a restoration of INSIANG (‘76). Hilda Koronel, starring here as Julio’s love, turns in a career-defining performance as a woman seeking revenge on her rapist in INSIANG.
MANILA is one of the more visceral films I’ve seen in a long time, a refreshing reminder that films from across the world and from a different time can still reverberate with power today. Please, do yourself a favor and watch this searing masterpiece.
Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag / The Nail of Brightness (1975), dir. Lino Brocka [The restored film] had its world premiere at the 67th Cannes Film Festival last May, where it was part of the prestigious Cannes Classic section. The premiere was graced by Maynila’s lead actress Ms. Hilda Koronel and the Filipino filmmakers featured in this year’s fesival: Erik Matti, Lav Diaz and Adolfo Alix Jr. Together with Koronel, the film was introduced by Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) Chairman Briccio Santos, World Cinema Foundation’s (WCF) Artistic Director Kent Jones, and Pierre Rissient known to be Lino Brocka’s and Philippine Cinema’s most ardent supporter in France. Martin Scorsese, WCF’s founder, also sent a video message for the premiere wherein he praised Brocka’s films for being “brave, extraordinary, powerful experiences.” The Cannes screening was warmly received as it was heavily applauded as the credits rolled.
Long considered as Philippine Cinema’s masterpiece, Maynila is lauded by many as the greatest Filipino film of all time. This is why FDCP in collaboration with WCF considered the restoration urgent and important. The restoration was carried out by L’Immagine Ritrovata in consultation with Mike de Leon, the film’s cinematographer and producer. Maynila is FDCP’s second restoration project after Genghis Khan which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year.