July Theme Month

Poverty as Exploitation: Manila in the Claws of Light

Lino Brocka is a filmmaker who carries little-to-no resonance in the West — neither does he fare much better on an international scale. He is no Spielberg, nor is he Kurosawa, and yet his national achievements are comparable. Brocka is perhaps the most pivotal and integral voice in Philippine cinema. An early adopter of social realism, Brocka directed his films to shed light on societal issues within the Philippines. This approach revitalized the industry, as it was previously unheard of due to media censorship amidst martial law. His films were a yearning cry of protest in a time of unrest. Case in point: Lino Brocka’s 1975 career-defining examination of poverty and corruption, Manila in the Claws of Light.

manila2Manila in the Claws of Light tells the story of Julio (Bembol Roco), a young fisherman who arrives in Manila (the capital of the Philippines) to search for his lover. Stripped penniless from travel expenses, Julio must resort to manual labour as well as taboo and illegal practices to scrape by. The days are long and the nights are cold, but Julio prevails — clinging to the memory of Ligaya (Hilda Koronel). His betrothed, smuggled to Manila by Mrs. Cruz (Juling Bagabaldo), a mysterious woman promising a prosperous future. Cruz is Julio’s only lead, and one day, he spots her — only to discover that the situation is more dire and intricate than he could have imagined.

Interestingly, the core narrative of the film is somewhat secondary — in the sense that it is about the journey, not the destination. Julio’s pursuit of Hilda serves little more than a tenuous thematic thread to traverse the slums of Manila. The conditions in which Julio must survive is where the film’s power lies. We watch as he slaves away at a hazardous construction site, where worker deaths are swept under the rug, and where the subpar pay depends on the wealthy boss’s mood. We meet locals who vouch for Manila’s wealth and infrastructural corruption. Through Julio, the audience surrogate, Brocka immerses the viewer in Manila’s sleazy underworld. This dichotomy of inequity and power structures tighten as Julio enter Manila’s illegal sex trade — an act of desperation. Here, as a male prostitute, he is subjected to trafficking and degradation at the whim of rich clients.

This is not to imply that Julio’s search for Hilda is without meaning, far from it. Hilda’s whereabouts serve as the final thematic gut punch, as well as an emotional culmination of Julio’s arc. In turn, Hilda’s story is merely a vessel for the deep-seated sociopolitical message that Brocka intends. Manila in the Claws of Light exists fundamentally as a product of, and response to, the Marcos regime. It is a film that sets to address issues of systemic poverty, exploitation, and even doubles as a semi-critique of capitalism. In fact, various political posters and vandalism with slogans of “Long Live the Workers!” and related phrases can be spotted throughout the film, scattered across Manila.

Historical significance aside, Manila in the Claws of Light would amount to nothing if not for Brocka’s rigid craft. There is a raw, unfiltered, and grimy realism to Manila that adds a genuine layer of authenticity. The sprawling city, the impoverished slums, and the unsavory night markets each feel honest in their depictions. Brocka despised formalism of any sort (the saturation of which, in the Filipino film industry, inspired him to make films). Thus, his films were stripped of any and all indulges. They were grounded, boasting naturalist cinematography and tempered performances. On that topic, Bembol Roco’s vulnerable yet restrained performance as Julio still carries weight, nearly half a century later.

While Manila in the Claws of Light may not have been Brocka’s first brush with social commentary, it was the first to garner a significant global audience. Unfortunately, apart from cinephile circles, these days Brocka’s work, as well as much of Filipino cinema, seems relegated to a niche. Today key figures like Lav Diaz hold a cult following, but it is worth revisiting Brocka’s work in particular. Lino Brocka’s creative output throughout the 70s was the decisive period in shaping the modern landscape of Philippine cinema. It signaled an embrace towards realism, altering perception of what the medium could achieve. Among the several films that he directed, Manila in the Claws of Light is widely regarded to be Brocka’s masterpiece — and arguably the greatest Filipino film of all time. The film that is as much of a sociopolitical study of its time as it is of its lead — the film that changed it all for the Fillipino film industry.

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