Manila in the Claws of Light (1975)

In the pantheon of Southeast Asian cinema, this stands as one of the finest films – bold, bleak and uncompromising.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Dir. Lino Brocka
1975 | Philippines | Drama/Mystery | 125 mins | 1.85:1 | Tagalog
R21 (passed clean) for sexual scenes

Cast: Hilda Koronel, Bembol Roco, Lou Salvador Jr.
Plot: Julio Madiaga goes to the city to look for his long lost love, Ligaya Paraiso. His search leads to a radical shift in his character – from a naive country boy to an angry young man thirsting for justice.
Awards: –
Source: Film Foundation

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Slightly Dark – Identity, Society
Narrative Style:  Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: National Museum of Singapore – Film Restoration School Asia
First Published: 6 Dec 2013
Spoilers: No

This is a rare film, almost impossible to find a video copy with a decent transfer (update: now available on The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray).  It is also the greatest picture ever to come out of The Philippines, at least film critics and historians have claimed. 

Thus it is only fitting that the film has been restored to a pristine condition and screened to an appreciative public as part of the Film Restoration School Asia programme. 

The late Lino Brocka, the preeminent Filipino director of that time, has crafted a bold, bleak and uncompromising movie that stands as one of the finest in the pantheon of Southeast Asian cinema, very much adopting a neorealist approach to filming while at the same time infusing the narrative with an episodic feel.

The lead character Julio (Bembol Roco) goes to Manila to find his missing lover.  He struggles to survive and does odd jobs like construction and even prostituting himself to male clients just to feed himself.  He moves from one part of the city to another, trying to find clues that might lead him to his loved one.

Through his episodic journey, the outstanding cinematography by Miguel de Leon opens our eyes to the appalling conditions of Manila and her suburbs.  People live in poverty, kids play in dirty rivers, and most seem resigned to their fate – where can there be hope for a better future when the present blinds all to light? 

“A girl who’s used to dried fish will be thrilled with smoked fish. But give a girl smoked fish when she’s used to ham and it’s all-out war. Poor girls are easy to please.”

Manila is indeed in the claws of light, at once struggling to break free from her political undoing, but at the same time being contained in a vat of fear.  

From its nostalgic black-and-white imagery in the opening scenes (which then turn into colour) to the disturbing final shot, Manila in the Claws of Light is a powerful reminiscence of a bleak past, of a nation in dire straits as authoritarian rule, corruption, and street crime threaten to derail any form of social progress, if any at all. 

Brocka also inserts Julio’s flashbacks of his time with his lover in the village – the cinematography here glows with warmth and is accompanied by a distinctive electronically-played melody, perhaps romanticizing a bygone time when all seem well.  The village, far from the political center, appears removed from the ills of urbanized Manila.  The villagers are poor, but they are honest people.

Julio’s venture into Manila is a test of his honesty, courage and perseverance.  It is also a matter of justice.  In this regard, Roco’s exceptional performance can be seen as motivated by circumstance not dissimilar to the reality of that time, one that is driven by a quest to right all wrongs in a bid to expose the (un)truths. 

Brocka sought justice through art – Manila in the Claws of Light is a legacy on its own and deserves both praise and contemplation.

Grade: A+


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