Based on a 1967 novel by Edgardo M. Reyes, Manila tells the simple tale of a country lad named Julio who ventures to the big city in search of his girlfriend, Ligaya.1 The latter goes missing shortly after being recruited to work as a housemaid. Between back-breaking jobs at a construction site and a brief stint as a call boy, Julio prowls Manila’s brothel-ridden Chinatown for any signs of Ligaya. Months later, he runs into her outside church. An ex-prostitute, Ligaya now lives as the kept woman of a Chinese shopkeeper named Ah Tek and as mother to Ah Tek’s baby. Julio convinces her to follow an ill-conceived escape plan. Ligaya does not show up at the appointed time, and dies under mysterious circumstances that same night. After her burial, Julio exacts revenge on Ah Tek by stabbing him with an ice pick. Fleeing the murder scene, Julio attracts a mob that corners him in an alley and lynches him.
Manila, in the Claws of Neon is a beautiful, devastating film about working-class life in the third world metropolis. It is widely regarded as Lino Brocka’s magnum opus and one of the finest works of Philippine cinema.2 Apart from tracking Julio’s quest for Ligaya, the film touches on three problems affecting the working class. These problems, which Brocka treats in overlapping episodes, concern unjust conditions at the workplace, unequal property relations, and human trafficking and prostitution.
The exploitation of labourers takes many forms in both film and novel (which was based on the author’s experiences as a peon). The scenes at the construction site detail the schemes used by the foreman, Mr Balajadia, to cheat labourers of their pay. These schemes include an almost 30 per cent salary cut and a kind of high-interest payday loan called ‘taiwan’. Brocka portrays the hellish working conditions through a combination of over-modulated construction sounds, off-kilter shots conveying the immensity of structures being built, and the alternation of quick editing and repetitious actions emphasising the pace and tedium of their work.
The problem of unequal property relations is examined through the story of Julio’s fellow construction worker Atong. Midway through the film Atong takes Julio in for a few days when the latter is kicked out of the construction site. Atong resides in a vast squatter’s area surrounded by factories and a polluted canal. The slum is called SunogApog (burnt-lime), evoking the contrasting hues of the tar-black sludge of the canal and the light shades of unburned garbage. Atong, his sister Perla, and their mute and paralyzed father end up in Sunog-Apog after being kicked out of their homestead by a land grabber. Months later, after Atong is beaten to death in jail, the shanties catch fire. His father is engulfed by the flames while his sister, who was away during the fire, ends up in the streets, and later, in the brothel. The total dispossession and ruin of Atong’s family prefigures Julio and Ligaya’s fates. It also portrays Manila as a proletarian inferno, one whose circles of despair go deeper than Julio can fathom.
Brocka portrays the third problem, human trafficking and prostitution, as both real and symbolic conditions. The system of trafficking is laid out as a puzzle. Julio, uneducated and new to the city, must rely on the help of his friends to search for Ligaya based on information contained in the only letter she sent him. Julio’s buddies figure out that Ligaya’s recruiter, Mrs Cruz, used a false name and sold off Ligaya as a sex slave instead of a servant because of her good looks. Being sold to Ah Tek, Ligaya believes, spared her from the worst of the flesh trade – heroin injections, group sex. To Julio, however, she seems to have lost everything in spite of having fled the world of prostitution. Her gaze is empty, and her spirit, broken. It was Brocka’s idea to put both his hero and heroine through the horrors of Manila’s flesh trade. (Julio’s night at the male brothel was grafted on the screenplay only upon the director’s request.) In Brocka’s portrayal of a dog-eat-dog world, not only the mighty exploit Manila’s poor. Marginal figures, such as Chinese émigrés and homosexuals, also prey on them. The film’s central motif of fatal brightness appears in scenes of the hero and heroine’s sexual exploitation. Depicting Ligaya’s confinement in Ah Tek’s house, Brocka frames Ligaya as a silhouette enclosed in a flash of light seeping through translucent window panes. Likewise, when Julio enters the flesh trade, neon signs burn, looming over the park where a call boy recruits him. The motif recurs when Julio sets foot in a male brothel ablaze with tacky lighting.
While there are no reliable box office records to prove it, Manila opened successfully.3 At the 1975 Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) Awards, Brocka’s entry bagged most of the trophies. Reviews were mixed. Some griped that the film was unfaithful to the novel; others complained it was derivative. There were critics who charged Brocka of anti-Chinese racism, and those who felt squeamish about the film’s gay scenes. But many hailed Manila as a triumph.4 Positive reviews described it as ‘bold and daring’, ‘an uncompromisingly great film’, and ‘the best thing to happen to the film industry in a long time’. 5
In praising the film, critics noted the elements that departed from mainstream conventions: ‘no bigname stars, a prestigious source material, new heights of realism’. 6 They admired the ‘natural’ acting, the cinematographer’s ‘visual stunners’, and the musical score that ‘puts to shame all others in the field’. 7 Many of these elements were neither unique to Manila nor first observed in that film. They would be identified later by critics as the hallmarks of a large body of accomplished filmmaking during the 1970s and 1980s called the New Philippine Cinema.8
What might account, then, for the film’s exceptional claim to greatness in Philippine cinema? The critic Noel Vera offers this insight: ‘Maynila isn’t much more than an excellently made melodrama; what makes the film great is finally its skin’. Vera here is referring to Manila’s ‘marvellous visual texture’, ‘voluptuous’ images that are ‘raw and honest’, and the ‘immediacy’ that makes for Brocka’s ‘melodramatic energy’. 9 This explanation, given in 2002, echoes the assessment of critics who have written about Manila since its release. A kind of tension informs the language critics use to characterise the film. Vera describes the film’s imagery, for instance, as ‘raw and honest’ (terms associated with documentary and realism) but also as ‘voluptuous’ and ‘melodramatic’ (words linked to beauty and artifice, respectively). Similarly, a review from 1975 ascribed ‘harsh poetry’ to the film’s ‘squalid, sordid settings’. 10
Indeed, these terms used by critics aptly describe Manila. They identify tensions felt on a number of levels. The tension within the work’s representational mode also extends to its genre identity. The contrast between realistic and beautified images is related to the tension between the work’s identities as social exposé and as parable. In both film and novel, Manila comes across as reportage (of the underclass at a particular place and time) and also as a universal tale of life and death in the modern city. Manila juxtaposes the language of peons as well as vivid portrayals of their routines with lyrical montage sequences and allegorical names (for example, the heroine Ligaya Paraiso’s name translates as ‘joyful paradise’).11 Brocka’s addition of ‘Manila’ to the novel’s title heightens this productive tension. The reference to the Philippine capital specifies the socio-historical setting where the parable of moths drawn to the flame is enacted. Brocka’s title reinforces the film’s variable identity as exposé and parable. This versatility may have been one of the factors that spared the film from the strict censorship policies of President Ferdinand Marcos’s authoritarian regime.
Vera’s notion that the film could be ‘nothing more than excellently made melodrama’ is worth pondering. The statement appears to imply the tension between the film’s superior craftsmanship and its less-than-prestigious categorisation as melodrama. It may well be that Manila’s designation as melodrama is key to its top spot in Philippine cinema. While many critics dismiss melodrama’s ‘low’ cultural value, others believe that melodrama enjoys a unique status as Philippine cinema’s traditional mode of expression.12 Apart from satisfying this criterion of cultural authenticity, Manila enjoys the advantage of being associated with an acclaimed literary work and a great director.13
Other writings on Manila discuss the movie in light of Brocka’s art and politics, the representations of sexuality and gender in his films, and filmmaking in the third world and in autocratic regimes.14
The World Cinema Foundation, chaired by Martin Scorsese, sponsored the film’s digital restoration. That version screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013.
José B. Capino
1. The literal translation of the novel’s title, ‘Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag’ is ‘In the Claws of Light’. The title has been translated in several different ways, but the recurrence of ‘neon’ in the novel justifies its use in the widely preferred translation.
2. See Joel David, Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema, Manila, Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1995, pp. 125–36; and Stephen Locke, ‘Maynila: In the Claws of in Frank Magill (ed.), Magill’s Survey of Cinema, Vol. 4, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Salem Press, 1985, pp. 1991–5.
3. Box office data for old films is hard to find in the Philippines. Manila’s screenwriter, Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. recalls in an e-mail correspondence that he saw many theatres filled to capacity during the film’s opening.
4. Criticism of the film’s deviations from the novel appear in many of the Philippine-published works cited here. Favourable comments on the ‘gay sequence’ appear in Culture Staff, ‘Many Facets of a Film’, Philippine Collegian, 30 July 1975, p. 7.
5. Mario Hernando, ‘Maynila: Brocka’s Best’ in Nicanor Tiongson (ed.), The Urian Anthology 1970–1979, Manila, M. L. Morato, 1983, pp. 210–13; and Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, ‘Pros and cons on the best local film,’ The Times Journal, 21 July 1971, p. 15.
6. Justino Dormiendo, ‘Mula sa Eskapismo Tungo sa Realismo’ (‘From Escapism Toward Realism’), Sagisag, August 1975, pp. 51–5.
7. Hernando, ‘Maynila’, pp. 210–13.
8. See David, Fields of Vision, p. 9.
9. Noel Vera, Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema, Singapore, BigO Books, 2005, p. 180.
10.Though its publication details are missing, I found this review insightful: Roque, Ma. Socorro Garcia (n.d.) ‘Goodbye to Fantasyland’, Lino Brocka 1977 Scrapbook, Lino Brocka Collection, Cultural Center of the Philippines.
11.Similarly, Julio’s last name, Madiaga, is eponymous. It sounds like ‘matiyaga’, the Filipino word for patience.
12.The critic Bienvenido Lumbera, Jr defines the ‘traditional Filipino movie’ as being ‘plotoriented and dramatic’ – in short, melodramatic – and attributes Brocka’s mass appeal to his grasp of this mode. See ‘Kasaysayan at Tunguhin ng Pelikulang Pilipino’ (‘The History and Prospects of the Filipino Film’) in Tiongson (ed.), Urian Anthology, p. 43. The notion that some national cinemas have a dominant mode is asserted by Linda Williams, who writes that ‘melodrama is the fundamental mode of American popular motion pictures’. See ‘Melodrama Revisited’ in Nick Brown, Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1998, p. 42.
13.On the other hand, Armes finds Brocka’s use of realism (a ‘cleaned–up version of poverty’) and knack for the ‘straitjacket of melodrama’ problematic. See Roy Armes, Third World Film Making and the West, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1987, p. 153.
14.See Gina Marchetti, ‘Four Hundred Years in a Convent, Fifty in Hollywood: Sexual Identity and Dissent in Contemporary Philippine Cinema’, East-West Film Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, June 1988, pp. 32–4. Patrick Flores, ‘The Slum and the Town: Reassessing the Brocka Paradigm in Philippine Progressive Cinema’, Diliman Review, 1992, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 45–52.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Philippines. Production Company: Cinema Artists Philippines. Director: Lino Brocka. Producers: Miguel de Leon, Severino Manotoc, Jr. Screenwriter: Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. Cinematographer: Miguel de Leon. Music: Max Jocson. Editors: Ike Jarlego, Jr, and Edgardo Jarlego. Cast: Rafael Roco, Jr (Julio Madiaga), Hilda Koronel (Ligaya Paraiso), Tommy Abuel (Pol), Lou Salvador, Jr (Atong), Tommy Yap (Ah Tek), Lily Gamboa-Mendoza (Perla).]
Mario Hernando, Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times, Manila, Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1993.
Charles Tesson, ‘The Cult of the Image in Lino Brocka’, in Rafael Ma. Guerrero (ed.), Readings in Philippine Cinema, Manila, Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1983, pp. 236–8. Rolando Tolentino, ‘Cityscape: The Capital Infrastructuring and Technologization of Manila’, in Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice (eds), Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context, Oxford, Blackwell, 2001, pp. 158–70.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.