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SILONG Scenes 1: Manila in the Claws of Light

SILONG Scenes is a series examining Filipino cinema from a young, diasporic Pinoy perspective

After all this time, the claws of what many consider Lino Brocka’s 1975 magnum opus still cut deeply. Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, or Manila in the Claws of Light, is stunningly dispiriting, charmingly defeatist. It is a stark statement of the limits of Pinoy resilience in a dark period of a city, country, nation no stranger to darkness. In 2022, Manila resonates with the eternal, universal languages of corruption, exploitation, and discrimination, both in its genius intentional and problematic accidental.

In 2019, Bong Joon Ho awakened the greater American masses to the magic that awaits “once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.” Parasite, and more recently, Netflix’s Squid Game, especially enamored Asian diasporic audiences for the possibility media from the homeland represented, not just in exceeding quality but in filling the gaps we cannot experience in the diaspora.

I’ve always been keenly aware of the proliferation of East Asian dramas and anime amongst my Asian American, Filipino American peers. But after Parasite, the question finally crystallized: what about Filipino cinema? Bong stated the late Brocka was one of his Asian director influences. Manila, based on Edgardo M. Reyes’ 1986 novel Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, is just one piece of the magic peaking over the imagined barriers of subtitles, the cultural barriers that turn us away from media from the homeland.

If you’re only to take one lesson from Manila, it is the immense suffering under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. The breadth of troubles of the Marcos era is difficult to condense. Theft is its most prominent theme: metaphorical in its moral bankruptcy, stripping of civil liberties and human rights, abandonment of the ordinary Filipino; literal in Marcos and his cronies defrauding an estimated $5–10 billion of the nation’s wealth.

The brutality of martial law is inescapable in Manila, as Lino Brocka imbues it into every part of his portrayal of the Philippine capital. The city’s bare concrete brutalism is set against the drab smog grey of wet season skies. Dingy neon is the only twilight reprieve in the red-light district. Polluting background noise threatens to suffocate dialogue. The varied score drives the film’s paranoia, from hair-raising synths to portentous Western songs.

This was Brocka’s mission as a movie maker: “There’s too much fantasy in the movies, too much escapism,” he said. “Philippine films are wanting in content; they need more realism.” Manila’s oppressive backdrop is just one device Brocka used to slip implicit critiques of Marcos past censors.

The first beats make clear that the city was built on this brutality. Our window into the stifling Manila is the protagonist, Julio Madiaga, played by
Rafael Roco, Jr. In his stint as a construction laborer, Julio is underpaid even by the standards of his underwaged laborers, collapses due to hunger and exhaustion, and witnesses a preventable work death. If they didn’t already know, Julio and the audience will come to understand that no justice will come of any of this.

With the movie starting in media res, we only discover Julio’s background in teasing cut-ins of ‘sa probinsya,’ the provinces. The luscious, sunny Marinduque shores contrast the bleak, concrete Manila. Why would anyone leave? Why would anyone come to Manila? As Julio warms up to his circumstances, his companions, the audience, we learn of his search for Ligaya Paraiso: his hometown girlfriend, swept off to the capital by suspicious promises of jobs and schooling.

Why else would anyone dare leave home? Too-good-to-be-true opportunities are still better than no opportunities. The desperate trap that the protagonist and his beloved find themselves still exists today in migration, immigration. Julio Madiaga is our avatar of the matiyaga, patient persistence, and our pursuit of Ligaya Paraiso, joyous paradise. For all Filipinos then and now, homeland or diaspora, that joyous paradise could be the promise of what a free Philippines could be.

Claws of Light is to Manila what movies like Taxi Driver (1976) are to New York. In other times, both cities would be lionized as representative of the best of their nation. Instead, their political and economic hardships birth a corruption that debases the cities, their citizenry. When Julio speaks of the innocence of the children playing in the black river, what is unspoken is the innocent lost by everyone the Marcos era left behind.

Meandering Rizal Park after being laid off, Julio confronts his being dragged into the city’s violence. After chasing down a would-be purse snatcher, he thrashes the defenseless thief and does not realize the extent of his rage until it’s too late. As he flees the scene, the city doesn’t get to praise him for punching down on a man who is as broke as he is.

That is one tragedy of Claws of Light: the bountiful solidarity Julio is indebted to has its limits in the boundless brutality of Manila. We don’t see Julio break, at least not all at once. This is owed to the magic of one Tagalog word that English captions can’t reproduce: Pare. Slang rooted in the Spanish ‘compadre,’ in Manila, pare signifies the brotherhood of the Filipino working class and is just another manifestation of the Philippine idea of ‘utang na loob.’ Commonly translated as ‘debt of gratitude’ or ‘debt of reciprocity,’ it is the cycle of solidarity in taking care of one’s own and being taken care of.

Three main ‘pare’ provide Julio companionship in his journey through Manila’s underbelly. Atong guides Julio in his first arc as a construction worker, familiarizing him with the construction fraternity and, at one point, taking him under his own roof. Bobby acts as an escort in several senses of the word. He houses Julio in his lavishly humble apartment, which he can afford as a gay callboy, even getting Julio a gig. This is notable not just as a reflection of Brocka’s sexuality but in surfacing LGBT issues still taboo amongst Filipinos today. And finally, Pol becomes the right-hand man in Julio’s quest for his beloved Ligaya.

But the issues with Julio and the pare are two-fold. The first is simple: “Wala silang pera.” They’re broke. The movie makes it clear it’s not of lack of effort. But most importantly, second: the exploitation that being broke leaves you vulnerable to. Atong can’t prevent Julio from being fired from construction, kicked out of the makeshift housing at the worksite. Bobby can’t stop clients from sexually exploiting him and Julio. And there’s little Pol can actually do to help Julio find Ligaya.

This is not unique to the Marcos era or the Philippines. Bong Joon-Ho did say, “We all live in the same country, called Capitalism.” Early in the movie, Julio is exposed to’ Taiwan’ practice. Under ‘Taiwan,’ the company is ambiguously unable to pay the workers. Instead, they can choose to get paid a percentage of their wage upfront. This past week on Twitter, I came across this tweet, where a similar practice manifests in the Big Tech age:

Where we find capitalism, so too we find colonialism. The highrise that Julio is hired to build, the land baron who condemned Atong to squalor, the name of the woman who took away Ligaya, Mrs. Cruz: all of Spanish origin.

The specter of American colonialism haunts Manila in the guise of the Philippine elite and their collaborators. The story of Julio’s former colleague rising out of the construction job via night school should be an uplifting one. Yet, the lunch between him and Julio only leaves a bad taste. Sporting a sharp ‘amerikana,’ he displays an arrogance and disdain for the working class, from his rudeness towards the waitress to his pointed, unempathetic words to Julio: ‘You have no future if you’re stuck in construction.’ To benefit from solidarity only to shrug responsibility in privilege is ‘walang utang na loob,’ a deep ungratefulness with no English direct translation. Pol’s outburst antagonizing ‘English-speaking snobs’ all but confirms this attitude.

We see Julio further surrendering to the city’s violence when a police officer wrongly arrests him. Earlier in the movie, companions continually rebuff Julio’s suggestions of justice with claims of corruption. Julio experiences it first hand as the officer takes all his belongings and uses Julio’s cash to play billiards. Amongst those belongings was the only letter from Ligaya he has left, prompting his declaration to Pol: “If I ever see his face again, I’ll kill him.”

Regarding Ligaya, the film itself shows the limits of Brocka’s own solidarity. As one might suspect, Ligaya was a victim of sex trafficking. The powerfully tragic performance by Hilda Koronel is truly one that should be seen, not just inadequately written, read about. But the revelation of that grave injustice is marred by one of the most problematic parts of the film: the treatment of Chinese Filipinos. Many believe the positioning of a Chinese Filipino as the head of the trafficking and situating the Manila Chinatown as a lair of villainy only further perpetuates the racism Chinese people in the Philippines face.

As a Filipino who’s never lived in the Philippines, this is difficult for me to navigate, as it’s something I’ve only become aware of in the past couple of years. For us in the diaspora, these histories from our homeland can be challenging to imagine, given how unified an identity ‘Asian’ seemingly is. But it’s important to remember that the pan-Asian identity emerged as solidarity in and against the hostility of the so-called ‘West.’

The anti-Chinese sentiment is integrated into the film’s resentment against the elite, some of whom happen to be of Chinese descent. But there’s no excuse for the consequences faced by Chinese Filipinos as a whole, working-class in particular, even to present. It’s difficult not to think of it as an echo of the string of anti-Chinese discrimination that runs throughout American history, from Chinese Exclusion to the Cold War to the Asian Hate of today. Ultimately, it is a shameful stain on an otherwise brilliant film.

Overall, the word to summarize the film is catharsis. No one would be surprised to find out Brocka harbored contempt for the Marcos’. However, it is still stunning to hear how deep and desperate that contempt is in his own words:

But the catharsis of Maynila can’t feel good. If there is any release in Brocka documenting the horrors of the Marcos era, Julio finally defying its futility, it cannot be satisfying. And maybe that’s the point. The only people who can be left feeling good after The Claws of Light, the Marcos era are the unconscionable.

In 1986, Ferdinand Marcos was ousted, once loudly supported by the United States, especially Ronald Reagan, for whom the betrayal of the Filipino was a small price to pay for a buffer from Communism in Asia. Marcos was quietly exiled to Hawaii, living in stolen luxury to his dying days. Yet, the legacy of Marcos was not and remains not to be written in stone. After the dictator’s death, the family returned to the Philippines and were prompted elected to power. Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. is currently a leading candidate in the upcoming Presidential elections.

Manila in the Claws of Light is a solemn reminder that there can be no true liberation until we answer the eternal question: how do we find our Ligaya Paraiso without succumbing to the unconscionable?

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