Sunday, November 24, 2019

Lino Brocka | Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Light)

the innocent destroyed by their beauty
by Douglas Messerli

Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr (screenplay, based on the fiction by Edgardo M. Reyes), Lino Brocka (director) Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Light) / 1975

Surely one of the very saddest films ever made, Lino Brocka’s (1939-1991) 1975 masterwork, Manila in the Claws of Light, takes us along for a long tradition of wide-eyed country innocents coming to the big city only to discover how corrupt and destructive that world is.
      One need only think of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Mário de Andrade famous Brazilian classic fiction Macunaíma, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and more recently, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy and even John Waters’ Pecker, where the young man, sullied by New York scene, takes them all back to Baltimore to reveal their own corrupt proclivities.
      The young would-be hero of Brocka’s work is the beautiful wide-eyed Julio Madiaga (Bembol Roco) come to Manila from Marinduque to reclaim his youthful lover Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), who has been lured away, with approval from her family, by the mysterious Mrs. Cruz (Juling Bagabaldo) who promises the young beauty a job and educational opportunities in the capitol city.
      Just observing Mrs. Cruz’s obsessive appetite for alcohol and other pleasures, we quickly perceive that her business is actually involved with the sex-trade, and that poor Ligaya has been sold in her trip to Manila into prostitution.

    Attempting to reconnect with her, Julio travels to Manila, hanging out in places, such as the ever-present Ah-Tek store (the character played by Tommy Yap), a Chinese immigrant who has apparently taken the unfortunate Ligaya as his favorite “woman.” Julio tracks Mrs. Cruz to the Ah-Tek store, and attempts to enter, but is rebuffed.
     Desperate to survive, Julio, who has been a fisherman previously, takes on the hard tasks of working in construction, forging friendships with several of his fellow workers such as Atong (Lou Salvador, Jr.) who befriends Julio and introduces his to the shanty-town conditions that allow he and his family to survive, while every payday being cheated in their paycheck (given what is described as “Taiwan wages,” instead of full pay). Atong, wrongfully arrested, is later murdered.
     Another construction-worker friend, Pol (Tommy Abuel) serves as Julio’s confidant, offering up important information of how to survive in his friend’s new world, and even helping Julio when he has no other place to sleep. Between them, there is an almost homoerotic relationship, which is made more apparent when, after Julio is fired from his construction job, he is brought, by a passing stranger, Bobby (Joio Abella) into the dark world of Pilipino call-boys whom Bobby’s client’s find Julio very attractive. He is, after all, a truly beautiful innocent, whom anyone with a heart might be drawn to.
      Yet, as we know from the very beginning of this sad tale, Ligaya, once she meets up again with Julio—explaining to him how she has been locked away as Ah-Tek’s lover and explains the full extent of her involvement in Mrs. Cruz’s prostitution ring—that she will not survive. It is left to his friend Pol to reveal the facts of her death.
      Julio’s ineffective attempt at revenge leads to his own death, from the hands of Ah-Tek’s minions.
      This tragic story, so unfortunately, is the story of so very many young people moving from one culture into another in every country in this planet.
     Innocence protected me in my voyage for a year to New York City. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
      One day, as I was walking the streets in the upper 70s streets, just above Harlem, near to where I lived while working at Columbia University—wearing, improbably, white pants and white shirt—a gang of young males surrounded me, promising a violent encounter; but when they looked at me, and saw the innocence of my eyes, they moved away without even touching me. I was mugged once, and the nervous robber who stole my total month’s salary, ran away without harming me, after demanding that I “drop my pants.”
      But clearly, in the long history of the abused young people who naively come to major cities throughout the world, that doesn’t always work. The beauty of innocence can often be overwhelming, but it can also be an entry for extreme abuse. In the tale Brocka tells, based on Edgardo M. Reyes’ novel, the beautiful are destroyed for no other reason than they are so lovely to look at.

Los Angeles, November 24, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2019).

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