Manila in the Claws of Light

Manila in the Claws of Light

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Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag is being released on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection under the English title Manila in the Claws of Light. Since the film was released in its native Philippines 43 years ago, however, it’s been translated into English as Manila: In the Claws of Darkness and Manila in the Claws of Neon. This uncertainty of translation reflects the uncertainty of the film’s characters, for whom Manila is a maze of dark corners and bright neon signs. Throughout Brocka’s docu-realist film, there’s no way of telling whether life is more dangerous in the light or the dark.

An ally of society’s outsiders and misfits, Brocka found only stupidity, not meaning, in the subjugation of the slum-dwellers, prostitutes, call boys, and undocumented workers who make up the underclass of the Philippines’s largest city and capital. For Brocka and his film’s characters, Manila is a libertarian dystopia, where poverty breeds its own predators and victims as the city’s poor grasp for the little wealth that hasn’t yet been distributed. Every cop is on the dole and every public official is for sale.

When Julio (Bembol Roco), a young man from the country, arrives in Manila to search for a lover, Ligaya, who’s likely been sold into sex slavery, he’s robbed of what little cash he has. Forced to work so he can afford the bare necessities of life, he finds a job on an unsafe construction site where he makes two-and-a-half pesos a day but four pesos according to the books. It’s “the foreman’s scam,” in which workers allow their employers to pocket a chunk of their pay for fear of being out of a job. Soon, Julio finds himself working as a prostitute, which pays better than construction even if it requires a different kind of sacrifice. Brocka’s Manila is ambivalent to Julio’s pain, and in its indifference, the city stamps out every glimmer of hope in his life.

There’s a deep undercurrent of anger and frustration to Julio’s journey. In the film’s first scene, a conversation between construction workers is followed by a fatal accident when a rope holding a bucket of water is accidentally released and the bucket falls from the height of a few stories. At this moment, the smooth, neorealist-influenced camerawork is traded for a quickly edited shot/reverse-shot montage between the bucket and the face of the man standing below it. This harsh, stylized moment of stupid, meaningless, and avoidable violence contrasts with the more subdued tone of the rest of the film. It’s a signal to the audience that no matter how hard the characters struggle, this world is indifferent to their pain. Even as Julio scours the city, building relationships with people he meets and getting closer to his goal of finding Ligaya, these short fits of violence and emotion disrupt the complacency of the characters to their situation, suggesting that there’s tragedy to be found in their acceptance of such a fate.

Manila in the Claws of Light can even be seen as a precursor to Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin, with its extended scenes of working-class struggle punctuated by moments of harrowing, highly stylized violence. Like Jia, Brocka suggests that violent reactions should be expected from a society that preys on its vulnerable. By the time Julio reaches his final confrontation with Ligaya’s pimp, an act of stupid, violent catharsis feels like his only possible course of action. When it first screened at Cannes in 1978, the word around the festival had it that Manila in the Claws of Light was a “dirty” movie, perhaps because so most of its characters are either criminals, homosexuals, or homeless, but also, perhaps, because Brocka had the gall to treat poverty as an ignoble tragedy for which violence is a rational response.

Image/Sound

Manila in the Claws of Light plays with a pre-feature title card informing us that the original camera and sound negatives were "wet-scanned" at 4K resolution for this transfer and supervised by cinematographer Mike De Leon. The World Cinema Project (WCP) acknowledges the original elements were significantly damaged, which makes this rescue effort all the more impressive. Light temperature varies with appropriate texture, especially in close-ups of Julio as his eyes longingly search for Ligaya. Neon pops throughout the film without looking oversaturated or digitally enhanced. While scratches and other defects are occasionally noticeable, it’s reassuring to see that the WCP hasn’t resorted to extensive digital erasure at the expense of the film’s cinematographic sensibility. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is satisfactory, if slightly hollow in range. Dialogue sometimes lacks timbre, producing a tinny quality that, if played at louder volumes, may yield distortion on certain sound systems. Max Jocson’s stinging electronic score, though, has been expertly mixed with the dialogue.

Extras

As is customary with WCP titles released through Criterion, Martin Scorsese offers a brief, ambassadorial introduction to Manila in the Claws of Light, thanking the National Film Archives of the Philippines for their assistance, and then hailing the film as a masterpiece. More exciting than Scorsese’s glad-handing is a duo of documentaries that showcase Lino Brocka at work. The first, "Manila: A Filipino Film," is a behind-the-scenes featurette shot in 1975 boasting remarkable on-set footage, most notably of the stunt work that went into capturing a man’s actual, multiple-story fall early in the film. (Viewers might be shocked by the sight of a dozen crew members manually holding a net to ensure the actor doesn’t actually fall to his death.) And the second, Signed: Lino Brocka, is a feature-length charting of the trajectory of Brocka’s entire career. The doc mostly features Brocka explaining his own work, Cinemanila (his short-lived production company), and why he thought of himself as a director for hire. (The clips from Brocka’s filmography will be exciting to anyone unfamiliar with the director’s prodigious body of work.) Film critic Tony Raynes gives a 20-minute talk on Brocka’s significance, both within Filipino cinema and abroad. Raynes touches on Brocka’s dedication to making films that take up social issues and Brocka’s regard for film-noir aesthetics, which began as a child when he became infatuated with actor John Garfield. The disc’s accompanying booklet features an essay entitled "A Proletarian Inferno," by film scholar José B. Capino. The essay examines, in part, the film’s "penetrating depictions of peonage and sex work" and how they’re conveyed through visual and sound motifs.

Overall

Criterion continues to expand its catalog beyond the shores of North America, Europe, and Japan with this gorgeous transfer of Lino Brocka’s stunning, subversive Manila in the Claws of Light.

Image 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5

Sound 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5

Extras 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5

Overall 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5 4.0 out of 5

Specifications
  • Blu-ray Disc
  • Dual-Layer Disc
  • Region A
  • Aspect Ratio
  • 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
  • Dolby Digital Formats
  • Tagalog 1.0 LPCM Monaural
  • DTS
  • None
  • Subtitles & Captions
  • English Subtitles
  • Special Features
  • New 4K Digital Restoration by the Film Development Council of the Philippines and the Cineteca di Bologna, in Association with The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project, LVN, Cinema Artists Philippines, and Cinematographer Mike De Leon, with Uncompressed Monaural Soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Introduction by Filmmaker Martin Scorsese
  • Signed: Lino Brocka, a 1987 Documentary About the Director by Christian Blackwood
  • "Manila"...A Filipino Film, a 1975 Documentary About the Making of the Film, Featuring Brocka and Actors Hilda Koronel and Rafael Roco Jr.
  • New Interview with Critic, Filmmaker, and Festival Programmer Tony Rayns
  • An Essay by Film Scholar José B. Capino
  • Buy
    Blu-ray
    Release Date
    June 12, 2018
    Distributor
    The Criterion Collection
    Runtime
    125 min
    Rating
    NR
    Year
    1975
    Director
    Lino Brocka
    Screenwriter
    Clodualso del Mondo
    Cast
    Hilda Koronel, Rafael Roco Jr., Lou Salvador Jr., Joonee Gamboa