Monday 27 March 2017

1,001 Films: "Manila in the Claws of Light/Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng liwanag" (1975)

Here is a city of which we really haven't been shown much at all. The director of Manila in the Claws of Light, Lino Brocka, introduces us to it in black-and-white, freezing it in time: though this footage was taken in the mid 1970s, it has the air of period newsreel about it, so impoverished is the landscape our gaze alights on. Only when Brocka brings up the colour - on the face of a haunted, hungry-looking wastrel (Rafael Roco, Jr.), lingering on a street corner, apparently for work - do we grasp that Manila is unfolding in the same decade as Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and, further afield, the release of Star Wars. Brocka's theme - ripped from the pages of Edgardo Reyes' novel In the Claws of Brightness - is the human cost of development. Seemingly shellshocked hero Julio has drifted into the city for reasons initially unclear; finding work among a crew of casual labourers paid a pittance to assemble luxury flats, he enters Manila society on just about the lowest possible rung of the ladder, one where life is cheap, and industrial accidents commonplace. Brocka appears to be pre-empting Ken Loach's later work around building sites and railway sidings, but the narrative line resolves itself in the direction of detective fiction - for it transpires Julio has come to town in pursuit of a girl; the ensuing game of cherchez la femme pulls him into the darkness, towards bumfluff and blind alleys, homelessness and prostitution.

It has the seaminess of an exploitation feature, but skirts it via the seriousness of a notable movie about exploitation, Brocka's leftist politics working its way into every last, desperate frame - and few films have been so completely committed to showing their audience how there are societies (possibly more prevalent now than in 1975) where the poor exist solely to serve the rich. If it sometimes unfolds like a series of sob stories taped crudely together (missing girls, mysterious deaths, slum clearances, con tricks), they have the ring of truth about them; this is one of those plots that works by accumulation, barrelling towards a point where our hero is finally driven mad by the sounds, iniquities and other pressures of the city and turns towards the violence that is his sole remaining recourse. Presumably this is one of those films Brillante Mendoza, himself a keen observer of the Filipino street scene, grew up with and took much from, but Western viewers might find other aspects strangely familiar, watching the new print restored by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project: could Brocka's depiction of mounting urban alienation - centred on a hero with what eventually proves a lethal case of white knight syndrome - have possibly fed into the following year's Taxi Driver?

Manila in the Claws of Light is available on DVD through the BFI.

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