English Title: Manila in the Claws of Light
Original Title: Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng liwanag
Language: Filipino, Tagalog, English
Director: Lino Brocka
Writer: Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr.
based on the novel by Edgardo Reyes
Music: Max Jocson
Mike De Leon
Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr.
Lou Salvador Jr.
Pio De Castro III
Lily Gamboa Mendoza
The linchpin of Filipino cinema, Lino Brocka’s pièce de résistance has been received a well-deserved BluRay treatment, MANILA IN THE CLAWS OF LIGHT is a searing social critique told through the jeremiad of a young fishmonger from a provincial island, Julio Madiaga (the newcomer Roco purveys a deeply affecting performance as a new-in-town tenderfoot) arrives in the big city to search for his childhood sweetheart Ligaya (Koronel), who has been roped into shady prostitute ring from their hometown, only to be overcome by a society infested with moral turpitude and unspeakable vice, belonging to the lowest of the social rung, Julio is inexorably driven to a breaking point when he can only resort to the most radical method to express his fury and desperation, and his ultimate denouement is ominously preordained through the accretion of his violent impulse.
Brocka hones a critical eye in presenting the film’s urban jungle milieu, shot in actual loci: the harsh conditions of those construction workers, one of them, Atong (Salvador Jr.) with whom Julio befriends, lives in the squalid shanty with his younger sister (Mendoza) and their bed-ridden father (a landowner expelled out of his own property by wealthy foreigners), adjacent to polluted water, believe it or not, he is in a well-off situation (before the sorry fate catches on with his family); a chock-a-block local market where bargains for goods soon sour into personal attacks and that particular building where Julio suspects Ligaya is interned by a Chinese-Filipino Ah-Tek (Yap), the rarely seen ringleader, and its neon-lit signboard.
His pittance is shortchanged by the sleazy honcho and dangled by the intrusive oldest profession, sacked mercilessly when he is no longer needed, Julio witnesses accidental death befalls on the construction site, the indignant fate befalls on Atong and his family, still, he is too wet behind the ears, succumbs to the skulduggery of a policeman imposter on the street. The crescendo of injustice is which lends this film its cachet and its undimmed relevance, the whole drama probes an unyielding peer into the miasma of unrelieved depravity (just to plumb how pandemic this kind of pathology can reach with a deplorable cri-de-coeur), mirrored through Julio’s nostalgic erstwhile memories (ultra-snappy edited), which we all but realize there is no way back.
An unexpected sortie in the rough trade virtually becomes the most benevolent segment among a concatenation of threnodies, where Julio reluctantly dips his toes with an epicene punter, which imbues a purely libidinous concern without any creeping malevolence, that is prevalent elsewhere. But, not everyone can find his feet in that line of business, the bar is quite high, actually. A non-judgmental take on the often pejoratively depicted subculture does flag up Brocka’s unflinching resolution to spark more social commentary than he would be allowed.
Eventually, a chance meeting (a rather oddly conceived occasion wanting more context) reunites the star-crossed lovers, and Hilda Koronel recounts Ligaya’s ordeal with palpable poignancy in the lengthy close-ups, only to be tritely weighed down by her inextricable maternal attachment, and spoils their final chance of a happier finale.
Upholstered with a perturbing score from Jocson, MANILA IN THE CLAWS OF LIGHT is as harrowing a story as one could envision, but under Brocka’s stylish execution, it brims with an urgency to provoke, to shock, to jolt viewers into condemnation, only if he could have curtailed his exasperating anti-China slant, viewed 40-odd years later.