ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW
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 sometime after Maynila first
came out, and the idea has persisted ever since. It has, in fact,
been given greater legitimacy with a top spot in the Urian's list
of the 10 best Filipino films in the past 30 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.
what they say. What about us - you, me, the mere mortals? What do
Strangely enough, it's a proposition we can easily test ourselves,
unlike with the works of other masters of Philippine cinema. Many
of them, for example, Gerardo de Leon's best - Daigdig ng Mga Api
(World Of The Oppressed, 1965); El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster,
1962) and Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo (The Python In The Bell-tower,
1952) have no available prints, and are deemed lost.
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 cinematographer,
Mike de Leon), and the film is shown regularly on cable TV.
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.
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...
episodic quality may have come from the source, Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag,
by 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 20 or more installments
full of subplots and side characters exiting or dying or having
climactic fits, you notice several advantages and disadvantages.
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
was once a popular way of publishing - Charles Dickens presented
his novels to the public this way; as Dickens 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.
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.
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's 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,
makes the passage all the more horrifying.
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.
advantage is that Julio's destruction is made all the more dramatic
- the destruction of innocents is always more dramatic. The disadvantage
is that the film is more simplistic in its treatment of Julio. Brocka
has streamlined and intensified Reyes's novel, but at the cost of
emotional complexity. Maybe not much... then again, maybe enough
to cross the line between art and melodrama.
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 with complex relationships, all interacting, in place
of a classically structured story; Brocka's Maynila has just one
main protagonist - Julio - interacting with himself.
really nothing more beyond him than his surface loneliness and suffering.
We know little of his past, other than his coming from the provinces
and once having a girlfriend; we know he has homosexual tendencies,
and that he's capable of murder when pushed - but that's all. Critics
have commented on this allegorical quality of Julio - that he's
the prototype Filipino, the symbol of the suffering everyman. I
think it's a polite way of saying that Bembol Roco - an excellent,
natural actor - doesn't have a character to work with here, that
playing a nationalist symbol has never made dramatic sense, and
that the character's passivity is really the passivity of an actor
who has not been given any idea of what's going on.
rest of the cast - Tommy Abuel as Julio's close friend Pol; Yap
as Ah Tek and 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
Koronel's Ligaya Paraiso, which one critic once described as representing
Ynang Bayan (Mother Country!), is possibly the worst offender; her
name translated literally means "Joyful Paradise," the kind of obvious
dirty-joke name you'd give a porn star, not your daughter. 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
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 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
cinematographer, Mike de Leon (who would go on to become a great
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 raw
and honest. More, the images are charged with an urgency, 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 print into the projector, fresh and smoking
life to the realism, of course, is Brocka's melodramatic energy.
If the characters in Maynila don't benefit from the three-dimensionality
of the best 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
dreg of life.
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...
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 merely
that - silhouettes, figurines. You stop looking for the 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.
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.
The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review
Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
Click here to order.