When Lino Brocka's Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag screens at MoMA this week, it will play 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 recent 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.