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Lino Brocka Manila in the Claws of Light

Disc Reviews

Criterion Collection: Manila in the Claws of Light | Blu-ray Review

Criterion Collection: Manila in the Claws of Light | Blu-ray Review

Before a modern art-house renaissance of Filipino cinema thanks to the international acclaim of directors like Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza (who have dominated the likes of Cannes, Venice, and Berlin over the past decade), Lino Brocka was the progenitor of Filipino cinema thanks to a trio of titles he unleashed in the mid-1970s. His 1976 title Insiang (which was recently restored courtesy of the Criterion Collection in their World Cinema Project Vol. 2 box-set) was the first film from the Philippines to premiere at Cannes in the Directors’ Fortnight (Brocka would eventually compete twice in the main competition, beginning with 1979’s Jaguar). Melding elements of social realism with (sometimes) tawdry melodramatic tropes which marked the output of his early prolific output, his 1975 classic Manila in the Claws of Light, adapted from a novel by Edgardo Reyes, has all the elements of a sordid film noir churned into the foreboding fatality of Greek tragedy.

Young and naïve village fisherman Julio Madiaga (Rafael “Bembol” Roco Jr.) has left behind the desolate provinces in which he grew up to search for his love Ligaya (Hilda Koronel) in Manila. Opening in the black and white slums of the Chinese district, Julio has spent all the money he saved in the past year in his search for Ligaya. At one time, she wrote letters from a mysterious address he scopes out at night in hopes of seeing either her or the sinister woman who recruited her from the village under the ruse of work in a more lucrative domestic service. Forced to work in the back-breaking and dangerous construction agency, Julio eventually becomes a gay-for-pay sex worker after a kindly interaction with a friendly gigolo who proves even men can use their bodies to attain a room of one’s own. Eventually, Julio’s luck takes a turn for the better, and he stumbles upon Ligaya outside of a church. But the man who now owns her is willing to go to extreme lengths to keep her…

Brocka’s portrait of Manila’s underbelly hinges on the inevitable poverty which defines the reality for many of its denizens, living ‘hand to mouth’ as one character describes it (the film was made under the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos, who has imposed martial law in 1972). Julio is preoccupied with his mission of finding Ligaya, and so seems to view the circumstances of his fellow colleagues, both construction and sex workers, as temporary predicaments which don’t define him. In short, Julio isn’t quite an active participant in the urban degradation he’s experiencing. Manila isn’t all bad, after all. “Maybe if you had money,” a co-worker explains, then the metropolis is certainly palatable. While Julio doesn’t have money, he has the desire to locate Ligaya and run away with her, even if it’s back to the hopelessness of the provincial life, which is depicted as another all-consuming trap people are desperate to escape. Playing like a riff on Orpheus and Eurydice, Brocka’s film plays similarly to items like Paul Schrader’s seminal Hardcore (1979) or Shohei Imamura’s eerie 1967 documentary A Man Vanishes, in which the director follows a man’s desolate fiancée as she tries to locate the man she loves who disappeared two years prior.

Like the revenge drama Insiang (starring Hilda Koronel), which would premiere a year later, Manila in the Claws of Night descends into genre pulp territory. What’s perhaps most astonishing is Brocka’s candid portrayal of a gay Filipino brothel, where poverty has led some heterosexual men to higher wages than many other opportunities in the city. On the other hand, the friendly gentleman who takes Julio under his sex-worker wing reveals some choice home décor which would suggest he’s lying about his heterosexuality (like a prominently displayed poster of Elizabeth Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew). Religion is also something Brocka doubles down on curiously. When Julio finally tracks down Ligaya, it’s outside of a church. However, as she relates her tale of woe, they pointedly leave consecrated ground to a place they can more easily converse…which happens to be inside a movie theater playing Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961), a cinematic depiction of Jesus Christ.

Much like Insiang, the experiences the protagonist faces in Manila warps him beyond recognition, and Brocka tosses his once innocent hero into the bleak clutches of considerable violence.

Disc Review:

Criterion presents this new 4K digital restoration in 1.85:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Picture and sound quality are superb in this transfer, which features some expressive cinematography from DP Mike De Leon, who supervised the restoration. Martin Scorsese introduces the title, and Criterion includes several bonus features.

Martin Scorsese Intro:
Director Martin Scorsese provides this two-minute introduction, comparing Brocka to Fassbinder as far as representing a period of his country’s cinema.

Manila…A Filipino Film:
Cinematographer Mike De Leon made this twenty-two-minute documentary in 1975 about the making of Manila in the Claws of Light, which features interviews with Lino Brocka and actors Hilda Koronel and Rafael Roco Jr.

Signed – Lino Brocka:
Director Christian Blackwood profiled Lino Brocka in this eighty-three-minute 1987 documentary.

Challenging the Viewer:
Filmmaker and festival programmer Tony Rayns discusses Lino Brocka and the social context of Manila in the Claws of Light in this nineteen-minute program recorded by the Criterion Collection.

Final Thoughts:

A significant pillar of Filipino cinema at last recuperated, Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Light is a profoundly sympathetic melodrama cloaked in gritty neo-realism.

Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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