Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Lino Brocka, 1975)
English Title: Manila in the Claws of Neon
Lino Brocka is arguably the Philippines' most recognizable director. Aside from the widely released Macho Dancers (1988), one of the few Filipino films that have been distributed internationally most probably because of its gay content rather than its quality, his films get showcased in Filipino cinema retrospectives in different film festivals. The usual suspects are Insiang (1976), Bona (1980), and Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon), Brocka's arguably most complicated work which landed in some international critics' lists as one of the most important films ever made.
The acclaim is not undeserved. Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag is a tremendous and powerful film. It's plot is derived from a serial published in a local magazine, knitted together by screenwriter Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. The result is something that can easily be seen asa derivative of the Greek myth of Orpheus' traveling to Hades to rescue his wife. Brocka's Hades is of course Manila, with its injustices hidden by affluence and commercialism as paraded by the several high-rise buildings and the neon lights that dot the metropolis. Orpheus is Julio Madiaga (Bembol Roco). Orpheus' wife is LigayaParaiso (Hilda Koronel). Julio, a fisherman from the province, travels to Manila to look for Ligaya, who was whisked away by a certain Mrs. Cruz (Juling Bagalbago) from the province to work and supposedly study in Manila. However, Ligaya was prostituted to a Chinese merchant who would trap her and threaten her every time she thinks of escaping his clutches.
Julio would be stalking Mrs. Cruz for months to look for his beloved Ligaya. However, his money runs out and he becomes forced to look for work. Julio starts working in a construction site. There, he gets immersed in the troubles of the common laborer. The other laborers complain as to how the foreman would exploit them by lending them their own money, substantially depleting a portion of their wages to atrocious money-making schemes of those above them. Julio befriends Atong (Lou Salvador), one of the laborers who welcomes homeless Julio to his house in the slums.
There's an interesting comparison Brocka drives at here. Atong's fate is tragic. He is practically killed for a mere squabble leaving his sister to prostitute herself in a bar, and his paralyzed dad to burn to death when the slums area suspiciously catches fire during the Christmas season. Another of Julio's companions in the construction site however hits it big and is employed in an advertising company. In a stroke of circumstance, the lucky one gets to meet Atong's sister in the girly bar, and presumably pays for her services. Interesting is the fact that former companions become each others' oppressors, and a stroke of luck might change one's status, and from there, turn himself, probably unknowingly, into one of the victimizers in this urban hell.
Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag is structured into episodes. After the episode with the construction site, homeless Julio is wooed into becoming a street hustler for a chance for quick cash. He sells his body, his dignity, his manhood for the original promises of a bright future by the neon lights that tempt everyone to enter the city. Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag is basically a film that threads together snippets of melodramatized chunks of reality. It's a huge cake to chew on and one might actually consider the film a bit too painful to watch, much too depressing and too tragic. The tale of Orpheus is subjected to the test of modern reality where hell is not another world, but a city where sweat, blood, and tears are within commerce, and those who are ignorant enough to get enchanted by its grandiose promises are oppressed and forever trapped in its clutches.
In the end, Julio is trapped in a dead end right after committing a murder. A mob gathers ready to beat him up, probably to death. Brocka shies away from showing Julio's violent demise but instead centers on Julio's face. It's a ghastly sight. Julio, trapped and wide-eyed. It is that moment in the film where the character can adequately predict his future. During the entire film, Julio walks around Manila not knowing whether he'll ever meet Ligaya, or he'll have a place to stay for the night, or what odd jobs he'll eventually end up doing. But at that final moment, you can tell from the horror painted in his face, he know very well that he's done for.