Monday, August 5, 2019

Manila in the Claws of Neon (Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng liwanag)

Director Lino Brocka

MANILA IN THE CLAWS OF NEON (Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng liwanag)       A                    
aka:  Manila in the Claws of Light
aka:  The Nail of Brightness
Philippines  (125 mi)  1975 d:  Lino Brocka

I added the word \“Maynila\” to the title.  I wanted to show a panorama of the city ― how a country boy is corrupted there.  \“Liwanag\” here reflects to the neon signs which attract the provincials like moths to the flame.  This film was difficult to make in the context of the gouvernment campaign to turn Manila into a \ “City of Lights\.”  A critic wrote a positive review of the film.  He compared Maynila to the \“Ibong Adarna\” (\“The Enchanted Bird\”), a popular folktale of a singing bird that enchants its listeners to sleep and then shits on them, turning them into stone.  The provincial is seduced by the city, and the city shits on him.

―Lino Brocka, Positif, 1982

A definitive portrait of corruption and authoritative rule, where ordinary citizens are merely pawns for the rich and powerful, forced to endure the bleakest circumstances imaginable, yet told with a vibrant sense of urgency that takes one’s breath away.  Brocka is quite possibly the best known and most beloved filmmaker the Philippines has ever known, with an unsurpassed influence on the new crop of young Filipino directors making independent films, like Lav Diaz, Brilliante Mendoza, or Raya Martin, with filmmaker Khavn de la Cruz describing him as “the ultimate icon of Philippine cinema,” considered among the best Filipino filmmakers ever, with noted author and film critic Noel Vera, Manila in the Claws of Neon (Lino Brocka, 1975) - Critic After Dark, echoing the public outcry in the summer of 1975, described at the time as “the greatest Filipino film ever made.”  While that’s high praise indeed, and sentiments may have shifted significantly over time, yet it’s important to consider this film was made nearly 45 years ago when the Philippines was under martial law (declared in 1972), allowing dictator Ferdinand Marcos to remain in power 21-years after his constitutionally limited two terms expired, where his rule was characterized by theft, political repression, censorship, and human rights violations, where for all practical purposes the rule of law was suspended and rampant criminality occurred, largely perpetrated by those holding allegiances to Marcos, who made it their business to siphon off the top anything they could get away with, like a personally implemented tax system lining their own pockets.  Released the same year the director publically announced he was gay, Brocka was among the most outspoken against Marcos, where the help and support offered to the protagonist throughout the film is a key ingredient in confronting authoritarianism, suggesting those in the struggle need to look out for one another in solidarity, as artists were unable to criticize the government publicly due to stringent censorship laws, so Brocka chose a different route, sending his message directly to the public by accentuating a near documentary cinéma verité aesthetic of social realism that audiences would recognize.  After building a career on mainstream movies the director described as “soaps,” he turned to more serious-minded filmmaking, creating a scathing portrait of the streets of Manila, using the eyes of the young Dostoyevskian protagonist to elevate the searing effects of poverty to the main stage, making that the centerpiece of his film.  Literally a blueprint for Jia Zhang-ke’s 2013 Top Ten List #3 A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding) which offers a blistering social commentary on China’s working class struggles, both films suggest that years of relentless worker mistreatment and preying on the most vulnerable citizens eventually leads to seemingly inexplicable acts of violence.  The film reveals how those on the margins of society are already at a breaking point, forced to navigate a path where exploitation is commonplace, routinely cheated and abused, offered little legal recourse, so what option do they have?  Chaos and insurrection are inevitable.   
Adapting a story by Edgardo M. Reyes, the film opens with a series of unfiltered black-and-white images of working-class life on the streets of Manila, eventually finding a lone face in the crowd, introducing viewers to 21-year old Julio Madiaga (Bembol Roco), suddenly transforming to color, where in the midst of bustling street activity subliminal imagery is used, disorienting at first, eventually leading to recognizable flashback sequences of a more peaceful time.  Coming from a small island where he lived as a fisherman, in his head he still sees his gorgeously beautiful island girlfriend, Ligaya Paraiso (Hilda Koronel), with scenes of them on a secluded beach recurring in his head from time to time, a stark contrast from the teeming urban jungle that swallows him whole, leaving him utterly anonymous, stripped of any identity, robbed once he arrived in the city, drifting from job to job ever since, living hand to mouth, sleeping wherever he can.  Using actual street locations that provide the gritty realism captured by cinematographer Miguel de Leon (also the producer and a director of his own films), we follow him getting a low-wage job at a construction site, loading and unloading gravel for cement mixing, but in the hot sun he passes out, as he hasn’t eaten in days, with a friend Atong (Lou Salvador Jr.) offering him part of a sandwich he brought for lunch, with fellow workers coming to his aid, shielding him from the foreman.  With Atong showing him the ropes, the healthy camaraderie displayed among the workers is light and amusing, with plenty of teasing, until an unfortunate accident kills one of them instantly, a serious reminder on how they’re skimping on safety conditions (no hard-hats or safety harnesses), regularly scamming workers out of their wages, offering them less, knowing they have no alternative, as speaking up only gets you fired.  This oppressive reality sets the tone, as for some, this is the best they’ve ever had, allowing them to send money home to their distant families, while Julio and a few others are allowed to live overnight in the sparse worker’s quarters on site, offering a reprieve from homelessness.  Julio has his eyes fixed at a particular street location in Manila’s Chinatown district, hanging out across the street, peering into the upper floor windows upstairs, believing Ligaya may be kept inside.  Of course, all residents deny any knowledge of the girl.  The bitter reality is that she was recruited by Mrs. Cruz (Juling Bagabaldo), an unsavory character who seeks pretty girls from the islands and promises them a better life in Manila, convincing the families they will even be sent to school, which sounds all too appealing, but letters home stop abruptly, with Mrs. Cruz writing the mother to report Ligaya has left her residence after stealing her jewelry.  Raising the ire of his suspicion, Julio follows the infamous Mrs. Cruz to Manila in search of his girlfriend, discovering this particular building, having no other leads.  When the opportunity to confront her happens, she denies any knowledge of the girl, instead accusing Julio of theft, calling out for the police, fabricating a purse snatching. 

The film follows Julio through a series of incidents, getting a revealing look at slum-life and poverty, as much about the city itself as this uniquely impressionable character, discovering others much worse off than him, yet he’s a likeable guy, always befriended by someone, reminiscent of Sal Mineo in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), where the world feels differently through his troubled yet intently searching eyes, youthful, innocent, overly personal and openly observant, but plainly vulnerable, sensitive, easily hurt, and slow to change his expression for fear of showing weakness.  While he’s an extremely complex and well-developed character, the rest are not as richly detailed in this novelesque landscape, with people constantly moving in and out of his life, most never heard from again, simply disappearing altogether, adding to the overall view of emotional emptiness, accentuated by a brilliant sound design composed by Max Jocson, creating dissonant electronic music and sounds mixed with enchantingly simple melodies, including liturgical music, creating a kaleidoscope in sound.  When Julio gets let go by the construction job once they get close to completion, he wanders aimlessly around the city, hanging out around the docks, thinking he can sleep under the stars, but other men try to pick him up, thinking he’s cruising, as that’s where men seek quick sexual gay hook-ups.  One particular guy, Jojo Abella as Bobby, brings him back to his upscale apartment with no strings attached, but Julio quickly realizes he works as a call boy, offering sex for money, leading Julio into the subterranean world of male prostitution, where it’s surprising to discover so many who are not gay, but in desperate need of money, willing to do whatever it takes for quick cash.  Clearly Julio is ill at ease initially, but as the new boy in boystown, customers are eager to call his name, becoming a popular choice.  This section was added by Brocka, as it was not in the book, but the sordid feeling of exploitation is brutal, as even though he’s appreciated, it’s just another layer of corruption where he’s viewed as a marketable commodity.  When he learns Atong has been wrongfully arrested and then murdered in prison, the world around him seems to crumble, as there’s simply no justice in the neverending barrage of assaults facing the working poor.  Continually targeted for crimes they didn’t commit, usually fingered as a means to shield the wealthy, the poor simply have all the built-in disadvantages, where it’s nearly impossible just to survive.  His friend under the most dire circumstances is Pol (Tommy Abuel), following him through the impoverished streets, witness to the same misfortune, as this becomes a coming-of-age film with Julio discovering the underlying rot and decay behind the veneer of modern industrialization, offering a sanitized new look for a deeply corrupt system in place.  What’s missing is any connection (beyond the dream of Ligaya) to something cherished, where the value of life matters.  With just a trace of political dissent seen fighting against the status quo, the overpowering hopelessness is contrasted by the stream of flashbacks, shown in enhanced colors, perhaps an added luster by one’s fond recollections, as the life on their island was poor but crime free, with a natural beauty all its own.  Ligaya has always been associated with those simpler times, wearing a smile and a bright, colorful dress, so when he finally does run into her, it’s much more complicated than it seems, finally learning the extent of Mrs. Cruz’s criminality, as she deals in sex-trafficking, the appalling details revealed in an extended monologue.  Still physically close, they may as well be lightyears apart, yet Julio, speaking finally as an adult, encourages her to escape that stifling imprisonment, offering to escape together.  Complications ensue, plans go awry, and destiny takes a different turn, becoming a heartfelt punch to the gut, leaving no one unscathed from the experience which feels as timeless as ever.  

Of note, Brocka died in a car accident in 1991 at the age of 52, having directed over 60 movies in his lifetime, basically the man responsible for re-inventing Philippine cinema, with his name included on the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Wall of Remembrance, which recognizes heroes and martyrs who fought against the 21-year martial law in the Philippines under Marcos.

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