Brocka’s ‘Maynila’: A film that lives

Kris Lanot Lacaba
'Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag' still thrives in its critical acclaim almost 40 years after its release

 FRANTIC. Bembol Roco in this iconic closing frame. Photo from The Urian Anthology 1970-1979

MANILA, Philippines – Lino Brocka’s landmark film, “Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag,” was modest in terms of budget, yet this movie is one of such broad achievement.

This work is often considered Lino Brocka’s best — some say the best in the history of Philippine cinema. But that distinction is also attributed to that other “Manila” film, Ishmael Bernal’s “Manila by Night.”

The Brocka film, based on Edgardo M. Reyes’s novel of the same title, has assumed a life of its own, nearly 40 years after its original release. It continues to thrive in its critical acclaim here and abroad, and this has led to its restoration and reshowing here and in Cannes. 

Early this month, the restored version was screened at the UP Film Institute, together with a video message by acclaimed film director Martin Scorsese (as World Cinema Foundation chairman), acknowledging “Maynila’s” place in world cinema and praising fellow filmmakers Brocka and Mike de Leon, the film’s cinematographer.

READ: ‘Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag’ in Cannes

CONTINUING ACCLAIM. The poster for the restored version of the film

“Maynila” was groundbreaking in its depiction of a city that was a character of its own – the crowded, grimy Manila of the 1970s that we are still familiar with today.

But the movie isn’t all squalor. Mike de Leon’s cinematography alternates the grittiness — the dumpsites, the depressed communities, the construction sites — with the gloss — the city’s colorful neon lights, and, of course, the call of easy money. 

The movie opens with shots of Chinatown early in the morning, as residents open their shops and sweep their storefronts. This opening sequence zooms in on the main character, Julio Madiaga (Bembol Roco, then credited as Rafael Roco Jr.), standing on a street corner right beside a pile of garbage. 

As Julio’s narrative unfolds, from the back story of his search in the city for his provincial sweetheart (metaphorically named, “Ligaya Paraiso”: Joy Paradise), we see more of the neon lights beguiling customers to enter restaurants, billiard halls, and cinemas.

In a later scene, the night seems to mock Julio with advertisements for expensive appliances, this when Julio doesn’t even have a place to stay and must spend the night on a park bench with all his belongings in a grocery bag.

The neon lights are a contradiction to the soot of this concrete jungle, and there is a further contrast with the fleeting flashback images of the sunny seaside fishing town where Julio and Ligaya (Hilda Koronel) hail from. 

Purity falls prey

The flashbacks set in the province are an idealization of small town-life – moving images straight from Fernando Amorsolo. Julio and Ligaya here seem to be nothing else but innocent and youthful sweethearts.

Such purity, and yet this setting is also revealed soon enough to be a place of numbing poverty – a poverty that prods Ligaya to seeking a better life and falling prey instead to the shady recruiter Mrs. Cruz. 

What is the value of a film like “Maynilain our time – amid the crowd of teleseryes rolling off the network assembly lines, packaged neatly as sob stories and rags-to-riches fantasies that tend to flatten the complex experience of poverty and desperation?

In that pop context, the movie can even be dismissed as a forerunner of what is today disparagingly referred to as poverty porn. Yet it would be wrong to see this film as mere melodrama set against depressed communities.

What the movie shows, despite such pre-martial law references as the First Quarter Storm, is the breakdown of Marcos’ New Society, from one that supposedly emphasized progress and law and order to the actual society where dreams are subjected to the abuses of police officers and greedy employers.

This film, after all, was released at a time when the apparatus of the New Society was already firmly in place. In its candor, the movie defied its oppressive milieu.

It also showed Brocka’s expanding vision after his bold statement in the gay-themed “Tubog sa Ginto,” and his rapid maturity as a director from the early success of “Stardoom” and “Wanted: Perfect Mother,” which were narrower in their themes.

READ: Revisiting Brocka’s 1971 gay classic

The myth of progress being proliferated during the Marcos years is one thatMaynila” shatters.

The film’s story neatly predates that period yet it actually testifies to how, a few years into martial law, the New Society that the Marcos regime had set in place was already becoming this systemic rot, confiscating the dreams of ordinary people – the tragic balladeer and construction worker Benny (Danilo Posadas), his also exploited workmate Atong (Lou Salvador Jr.), and Julio and Ligaya. 

From their inadequate if still serene and secure hometown, Julio and Ligaya are dragged to the city, toward a future in shambles. Because this narrative remains compelling even today, “Maynila” will never become a relic, it will remain a testimony. 

One of the movie’s great achievements is its use of neorealist techniques in depicting the city’s sinister side. The film as a whole may seem at once tragic and fatalistic. And its bleak ending (which also pays a nod to the closing frame of Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows”) caps the overall tone of “Maynila.”

But there is one instance that prevents the movie from being viewed as completely nihilistic. The protest rally (led by Mario O’Hara in a cameo) marking the January 26 movement of the First Quarter Storm, which Julio witnesses, could be read as Brocka’s not-so-subtle message that there is hope if the oppressed rise up and make their voices heard as one.

The point of watching the movie today is not to affifm our always grotesque Manila in our time, lumbering in squalor. Even when there are only tragedy and despair for the movie’s anti-heroes, there is at least hope for the audience and for society. –

Kris Lanot Lacaba is a poet, editor, and film and pop culture enthusiast.

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