Monday, February 03, 2014

Manila in the Claws of Neon (Lino Brocka, 1975)

Photo thanks to Video 48
With the film's digital restoration and premiere at the Cannes Festival, and subsequent Feb. 9 Saturday at 8 pm screening in New York City's MoMA, a reprint of my thoughts (pre-restoration) on the film:

Maynila at the edge of greatness

(Warning: plot discussed in close detail)

Lino Brocka is the best Filipino filmmaker ever; his masterpiece, Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975) the greatest Filipino film ever made.

That was the consensus arrived at some time after Maynila first came out, and the idea has persisted ever since. Has, in fact, been given greater legitimacy with a top spot in the Urian's list of the ten best Filipino films in the past thrty years, and by inclusion in the book Film: the Critic's Choices--a list of what some critics consider the 150 greatest films ever made.

That's what they say. What about us--you, me, the mere mortals? What do we think?

Strangely enough, it's a proposition we can easily test out ourselves, unlike the works of other masters of Philippine cinema. Many of, say, Gerardo de Leon's best--Daigdig ng Mga Api (World of the Oppressed, 1965); El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster, 1962); Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo (The Python in the Bell-tower, 1952) have no available prints, and are deemed lost. As recent a filmmaker as Celso Ad. Castillo has had the negatives of his masterwork, Burlesk Queen (Burlesque Queen, 1977) turn to vinegary rot, while his epic Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan (The Legend of Julian Makabayan, 1979) is represented by a single faded 16 mm print. Not so with Brocka's Maynila-- a beautifully preserved subtitled print is available for screening (thanks to the picture's producer/cinematographer, Mike de Leon), and the film is shown regularly on cable TV.

So how does the film fare, nearly thirty years later?

Maynila is the story of a young provincial named Julio Madiaga (Bembol Roco) who goes to the city to look for his lost love, Ligaya Paraiso (Hilda Koronel). He has one adventure after another before he finds Ligaya, who is kept hostage by a Chinese named Ah Tek (Tommy Yap). Julio and Ligaya plan to run away together, but Ah Tek stops Ligaya by killing her. Julio stabs Ah Tek to death, then runs; he's ultimately hunted down and killed himself.

The film in outline has a simple story--too simple, you might say; not much structure to it. Julio simply wanders around, passive, and allows everything to happen to him. After a while, he joins a construction company, and learns of unfair labor practices. A fellow worker dies; Julio is ultimately fired. After which he is introduced to the world of gay sex and turns male prostitute. After which he finally meets Ligaya inside a church...

The episodic quality may have come from the source, Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, by the late Edgardo Reyes, serialized in Liwayway Magazine from 1966 to 1967. For each episode or installment, the writer provides enough incidents--bringing the end of the installment to enough of a conclusion--to satisfy the reader, at the same time keeping enough elements unresolved to entice him back for more. After several installments full of subplots and side characters exiting or dying or having climactic fits, you notice several advantages and disadvantages. One is the near-unpredictability--you can almost never guess what's going to happen to whom, or why. Another is the near-formlessness--having to retain the interest of a fickle audience, the writer usually keeps a constantly changing sideshow of clowns and grotesques and whatever going on, while the real story develops almost in the background.

It was once a popular way of publishing--Charles Dickens among others presented his novels to the public this way; as Dickens himself might put it, it's as popular an artform as you can imagine, entertaining and easy to digest (no matter how unwieldy the final hardcover may be). And Reyes, despite his considerable literary talents and (or perhaps because of) deeply felt social concerns, clearly wants to be seen as a popular artist, a people's artist.

And it's a legitimate way of telling a story. You don't always get the pleasures of a well-made plot--the twists, the reversals, the sudden revelations--but you do get something less conventional, harder to define: something much more similar in feel to real life.

There is a crucial difference between novel and film, however, and it isn't just the gay sequences that Brocka, in a fit of autobiographical exhibitionism, decided to insert into the picture. Brocka's Julio is driven into a corner, taunted, and tortured before he thinks of killing; in Reyes' novel, Julio was already a killer. It's a relatively short passage, where Reyes suggests that Julio follows a man into an alley to murder him--its very casualness, incidentally, making the passage all the more horrifying.

It's not just a matter of a small scene or episode being deleted for reasons of length; it's also not a matter of crying "foul!" just because a hair on the original's head was touched. Julio's crime colors our perception of him, makes him less passive, less of a victim or innocent; it makes our feelings for him more ambivalent and complex. By deleting the murder, Brocka ensures that our identification with and love of Julio is absolute; Julio's destruction is made that much more dramatic--the destruction of innocents is always more dramatic. Brocka has streamlined and intensified Reyes' novel, but at the cost of emotional complexity. Maybe not much...then again, maybe enough to cross the line between art and melodrama.

And this I think is a key weakness in the film. Yes, Maynila has an open, rather amorphous story structure--a perfectly acceptable style used repeatedly with some success (think Robert Altman's Nashville (1976) or its Filipino descendant, Ishmael Bernal's Manila By Night (1980)). But Altman's Nashville and Bernal's Manila gave us a constellation of characters all interacting in place of a classically structured story; Brocka's Maynila has just one main protagonist--Julio--interacting mainly with himself. There's really nothing more beyond his surface loneliness and suffering; we know little of his past, other than his provincial origins and former girlfriend. We know he has gay tendencies, we know he's capable of murder when pushed--but that's all. Critics have noted this allegorical quality of Julio, that he's the prototype Filipino, symbol of the suffering everyman--a polite way of saying that Bembol Roco, excellent actor, doesn't have much of a character to work with here, that playing a national symbol has never made dramatic sense, and that the character's passivity is really the passivity of an actor who has not been given much idea of what's really going on.

The rest of the cast--Tommy Abuel as Julio's close friend Pol; Yap as Ah Tek; Pio de Castro as Julio's up-and-coming friend Imo--are vividly drawn, but again interact with Julio in terms of whether or not they are allies or enemies; there are no shadings, no levels of ambiguity. Hilda Koronel's Ligaya Paraiso, which one critic once described as representing "Ynang Bayan" (Mother Country--!), is possibly the worse offender; her name translated literally means "Joyful Paradise," the kind of obvious dirty-joke name you'd give a porn star. Koronel is given a chance to prove herself late in the picture, with a long monologue delivered to Julio inside a motel room, a sad and sordid tale of rape and forced imprisonment. By monologue's end, with Koronel crying hysterically and Roco giving reassuring caresses, two things pop into your mind: 1) Koronel is a very beautiful and fairly talented young woman, and 2) she's too young and raw to carry off the complex, heavily-loaded monologue she just delivered. Pity, but there you are.

I'm not trying to make a case for Maynila not being a great--I think it is, but not for the reasons people have traditionally given for the film. In terms of its "meat" and "bones"--its characterization and story structure--Maynila isn't much more than an excellently-made melodrama; what makes the film great, finally, is its "skin." Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag has marvelous visual texture, thanks to its producer-cinematographer Mike de Leon (who would go on to become a great filmmaker himself). From its opening shot of littered sidewalks and choked-up "esteros" (canals) to its final one of Julio, cowering at the bottom of a dead-end alley, it is a series of voluptuous images captured at their rawest. More, the images are charged with an immediacy uniquely Brocka's--as if Brocka had shot the picture right outside the theater where it's screening, developed the rushes, and raced inside to spool the smoking-hot print back into the projector.

If the characters in Maynila don't benefit from the three-dimensionality of more sophisticated screenwriting, they--the leads down to the teeming extras--are blessed with that intense, Brocka-mandated quality of people struggling furiously to live, to hold on to every miserable erg of life. Roco in particular may be playing a symbol more than a fully realized character, but he does so with every nerve in his body alive, aware, straining to be unleashed. Catching sight of him for the first time onscreen (standing in the corner of Ongpin and Misericordia) you draw back, troubled by the animal fear in his eyes, the same time you're drawn in by their liquid sensitivity. A connection is made--

--a missing circuit closes, and the film comes to blazing life. You realize that the figures, the silhouettes you glimpse onscreen that stubbornly refuse to resolve into recognizable human beings are actually that--silhouettes, figurines. You stop looking for psychological depth that isn't there and instead lean back to drink in the broad strokes, the panoramic view. The protagonist of the film, as it turns out, isn't Julio, or Ligaya, or the various other supporting characters; it's the city itself.

As a portrait of one man's corruption and downfall, Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag leaves much to be desired. As a portrait of a city caught between the edges of heaven and hell the picture is unmatched--no other Filipino film looks or feels quite like it, ever or since.

First published in Menzone Magazine, August 2002

Included in my book Critic After Dark: a Review of Philippine Cinema. Email provided to order copies.

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