Classic? Re-evaluating Lino Brocka’s “Manila in the Claws of Light” (1975)

A shot of two actors from Lino Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Light

Lino Brocka’s “Manila in the Claws of Light” is a solid film, but more a social document than effective drama.

A dirty corner of the street. Late evening. Julio Madiaga’s face in the lamplight. The vibrancy of his eyes is caught in desperation: a silhouette in the window above him. A woman arranges her hair. A memory from a past paradise flashes into frame. Madiaga had a girlfriend, once upon a time. Their paths diverged after a cruel woman took her away on a boat to the capital. She vanished shortly thereafter. He can only guess at her fate, but the city provides him with many educated guesses. (The pimps who cajole him on the curb with their wares – prostitutes, often blank faced, or simply faceless – suggest some sinister end.) Already the city has battered him into destitution, and on the intersection of Misericordia and Ongpin, what he’s come from the provincial town of his birth to find is barred behind a rectangle of light, which immobilizes him, brightens every twitch on his face, and discloses the answer to his question within a shadow – the claws of light, indeed. Illumination, in this story, is no comfort, and often is representative of some misery of either Madiaga or, more cogently, the city which consumes him.

Manila in the Claws of Light draws strength from scenes like the one described above, when the plot stops to recontextualize the emotions it traffics in, interrupting what is essentially an over two-hour-long document of despair. It is a delicate moment, full of longing, and Bembol Roco gets much of the credit, for he possesses great sensitivity of expression, and the script makes no serious demands on him save for the kind of youthful naivete that is suitable for a provinciano like Julio Madiaga. In a film without any bravura visuals (the only distinctive technique used is flashbacks edited to literally flash across the screen for a second or two), unique plot twists, or any truly interesting characters – specifically, characters whose potential are never capitalized on – small moments like this make the long slog more bearable.

The film’s main lack is not so much unrelenting grimness as it is its refusal to go deeper. The simplicity of the story’s logic doesn’t help: Manila is a center of corruption and urban squalor destroying innocence, punishing idealism, breeding mindless violence, etc. Chained as they are to this trajectory, the characters just suffer and are only rarely given a sense of life apart from their suffering. Take Madiaga, for example. His arc is a downward curve. The film begins with him having been in Manila for quite some time, homeless and unemployed. He is hired at a construction site and collapses from hunger on his first day. He commiserates with his coworkers, who are all poor and have, for the most part, resigned themselves to their fate. The only one who hasn’t, a student named Imo, chides them for their lack of ambition. By the end, Imo is the only one to escape the drudgery of hard labor after nabbing an advertisement job which he promptly lords over his friends. Another worker is Benny, a carefree man who is content with his life as a laborer until a freak accident at the site kills him due to his carelessness. Then there’s Atong, who takes Julio in, even letting him stay a night in his cramped house in the slums. They get caught in Julio’s orbit for a time, discovering (along with the viewer) the reason Julio is in Manila: to find Ligaya, his hometown love who was brought to Manila by a mysterious Mrs. Cruz for a supposed work opportunity. He was able to track Mrs. Cruz to a building owned by a Chinese man named Chua Tek. However, after an effort to get inside was rebuffed, he’s been stranded outside, waiting for any sign of Ligaya on the premises.

The rest of the film follows Madiaga’s travails in the city. It is one crushing disappointment after another. After being laid off at the construction site, Julio even has a brief stint as a male prostitute in the underground gay community of Manila, with the assistance of Bobby Reyes. Reyes is one of the film’s potentially interesting characters: a young, handsome, relatively well-off callboy who, nevertheless, denies his homosexuality. Why Reyes so quickly attempts to entice Madiaga into his lifestyle after a chance encounter at a park is never made clear. It ends with Julio parting from Reyes immediately after his first time as a callboy goes awry. He reconnects with Pol, a friend he met at a previous job. When another work opportunity arises, they go to recruit Atong – only to find out he was murdered after an altercation with the corrupt boss. Atong’s sister, Perla, is left alone to take care of their paralyzed father (wounded after losing a battle over family territory to a Spanish businessman) – but when Pol and Julio try to help her out, a fire burns their house to the ground, wounding the father even further and driving Perla to prostitution to eke out a living.

Then, miraculously, Julio finally discovers Ligaya at a church. They sleep together, and Ligaya reveals that Mrs. Cruz is a sex trafficker who travels the Filipino countryside abducting young girls like Ligaya with a scam story about working in the city to send money back home – only to be sold into sex slavery. Any resistance is met with the threat of forced morphine addiction. The two plan an escape back to their hometown with Ligaya’s child (sired by Chua Tek, who confines her to their home on pain of death) but Ligaya fails to show up to the appointed location. He is crestfallen, but Pol later informs him that she was killed by Chua Tek when he found out about their plan. They attend Ligaya’s funeral, and afterwards, enraged, Julio goes to Chua Tek’s home and stabs him to death. This is done in plain view, however, so a mob quickly forms and corners Julio in an alley. Manila in the Claws of Light’s closing scene is a closeup of Julio’s screaming, tear-stricken face as the citizenry rushes to deal out death.

A shot of the protagonist in Lino Brocka's Manila in the Claws of LightThis is a puzzling choice, despite how Brocka (and Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr., who adapted the screenplay from a novel by Edgardo M. Reyes) sets the finale up: several moments of a sudden urge for violence overtaking Julio are interspersed throughout the film, characterized by frenetic camera movements focusing in on his widened eyes and shaking fists. The idea is that the corruption of the city – dirty cops, sex trafficking, capitalism run riot – slowly creeps under his skin until he is forced to retaliate, violently killing the man who murdered Ligaya and faced zero legal repercussion. At the same time, Julio is portrayed as a very soft, vulnerable person – seen playing with children and small animals, easily folding when his wages are withheld by his boss, getting completely manhandled when a cop abuses him on the street. That these aspects of Julio are forced together without a smooth transition from one state to the next (meek country boy to violent murderer) makes Manila in the Claws of Light more of a parable than the gritty, realistic crime drama it is often touted as being. One never gets a look into Julio’s psyche as this litany of suffering persists, or any character’s psyche, for that matter. They exist to be oppressed, and to writhe under their oppression until it becomes too much, and they lash out – only to be crushed by forces greater than they comprehend: Atong speaks out against their boss’s corruption and is assassinated in jail, as a result. Ligaya wishes to help her poor provincial family out financially and is made a sex slave. Julio simply wants to find his girlfriend – his desire is met with abuse, potential sex work, and finally, death. Et cetera.

Ligaya’s full name, in fact, translates to something like “beautiful paradise.” This, paired with the idyllically framed flashbacks to Julio’s childhood home, adds to the film’s parabolic nature. It’s a moral warning against degradation, which seems to stem from the urban grime represented by Manila (as opposed to the pastoral beauty of the province). When Julio wanders in the city at night after losing the construction job, neon signs of global corporations flare behind his head as another example of light’s malevolence, and the boot of Western hegemony, which looms in the shadows as the film’s “smaller” corruptions take their course. It’s a stale moralism, though, and with little attempt on the part of the filmmakers to offset the monotonous darkness, such moralism comes across as lecturing and, worst of all, dull.

On a brighter note, the performances are uniformly solid. Again, Bembol Roco’s provinciano naïveté is believable, even though one senses the specter of plot convenience when he commits acts of utter stupidity, like nigh-assaulting Mrs. Cruz in broad daylight. Hilda Koronel, as Ligaya, is quite good, especially in her sad monologue to Julio after lovemaking; although this, as well as Perla’s breakdown earlier in the film, is yet another straightforward entry of suffering, with both treated a tad too melodramatically. Her best moment is when Julio confronts her in the church, and they lock eyes for the first time outside of Julio’s reminisces. It’s the sort of acting done with the minutest of details, as there’s no visible double-taking, and she lets the shock hang on that small silence between recognition and response. Jojo Abella as Reyes is good, with the episode involving the callboys of Manila injecting much-needed levity to the proceedings, although I struggle to see why it was included, since it has little meaningful impact on Julio. Brocka thought it would add to the film’s realistic nature, and insofar as it sheds light on the existence of Manila’s underground gay community, this is correct, but does it add to the core drama of his story? I would say no, although I suspect Brocka, as a gay man, felt some empathy for these characters. For what it’s worth, it shows, since the subplot is largely free of any cheap luridness a less aware director might choose to engage in.

There’s one scene, though, that gives insight into the psyches of these sufferers. It’s a slim look – just a peek, really – and it happens right before Pol breaks the news of Ligaya’s death to Julio. They’re eating at a favorite restaurant of Pol’s. He dances around the issue for a moment, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, tells Julio about the fakirs in India, who walk on burning coals without feeling pain. He challenges Julio:

Pol: Think you could do that? Think you could put out that cigarette in your palm?
Julio: I’d get burned for sure.
Pol: Put it out in mine.
Julio: Just one beer and you’re already drunk
Pol: Come on! Go ahead!
Julio: Forget it.
Pol: If you won’t…then I will.

He extinguishes the stub on his palm. Tommy Abuel, as Pol, plays it low-key, letting the pain simmer underneath his expression, as his friend watches in disturbed fascination. Why does he do this? Perhaps, Christ-like, Pol wants to take some of Julio’s pain on himself? Does he want to steel Julio in preparation for what’s coming? Or is Pol put off by the total passivity Julio has displayed throughout the film, letting both fortune and misfortune crash upon him at will, and seeks to shock him into some emotion? Why do any of these long sufferers do what they do? Regretful, void of aspiration, they slave away under an oppressor’s grip; the land they occupy resembles hell, with no end in sight to their punishments. Like those processions in which scores of penitents flog themselves in religious ecstasy, there must be some self-compulsion to their torture, withholding them from Imo’s ambition, however tawdry, and rendering them choice targets for those above them. In the midst of total despair, how could there not be? Only Julio Madiaga seems attached to something transcendent, haunted by memories more luminous than anything else in the film. For this, he is dealt with, accordingly. It is a bleak end, and hardly deserving. But ask yourself: so clearly trapped between shadow and light (Ligaya’s enshrouded face as absent of a smile as it was in life), was his doom, in the wake of such a sequence of events, ever in question?

Manila in the Claws of Light: 1975; re-release 2013, dir. Lino Brocka, dist. Cinema Artists Philippines

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