Latest Review – Manila in the Claws of Light (Blu-ray) (BFI)

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Latest Review – Manila in the Claws of Light (Blu-ray) (BFI)
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Manila in the Claws of Light (Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag)

Director: Lino Brocka

Cast: Bembol Roco, Hilda Koronel, Lou Salvador, Jr., Juling Bagabaldo, Tommy Abuel

UK Distributor: BFI

Genre: Drama • Year: 1975 • Country: Philippines • Running Time: 126 minutes (2:06:22) • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Image: Colour • Language: Filipino (Tagalog) • Rating: PG • Region: Region B (locked) • Video: 1080p High Definition [Resolution] | MPEG-4 AVC [Codec] • Audio: Tagalog Linear PCM 1.o (24-bit ) • Subtitles: Optional English

Widely hailed as the most influential and significant of all Filipino filmmakers – perhaps rivalled only by the more contemporary Lav Diaz in overall renown – Lino Brocka directed an impressive sixty films in a prolific career spanning just two decades, though shortly after completing work on what was to be his final feature film, Makiusap ka sa Diyos, his life was tragically cut short by a fatal car accident in 1991, at the aged of just 52.

In 1997, Brocka received a National Artist of the Philippines Award for his contributions to the development of Philippine arts (an award later elevated to the status of Order); a much deserved honour given the vast body of work he left behind, yet within that body of work, there is one notable achievement that stands firm as his true magnum opus, his brave, bold allegorical drama, Manila in the Claws of Light.

Based on Edgardo M. Reyes’s In the Claws of Brightness (a 1986 novel originally serialised in Liwayway magazine between 1966 to 1967), the film depicts the episodic struggles of 21-year old Júlio Madiaga, a rural fisherman newly arrived in the capital in search of his childhood sweetheart (and betrothed), Ligaya, a naive young girl lured from her picturesque island home by the villainous Mrs Cruz with the promise of schooling and factory work, but unsuspectingly forced into the world of prostitution.

A black and white opening title sequence begins with the gentle clip clop of hooves on cobbles as a donkey-drawn cart makes its way through the quiet, humble streets. Harmony soon gives way to vibrant chatter as the streets fill up, chatter then gives way to the purr of engines and engines lead into the crowded hustle and bustle of Manila’s stifling urban jungle – beeping horns, raised voices and all – eventually fading from stark monochrome to vivid colour and concluding with the now recognisable tableau of the ever-hopeful Julio – the archetypal provincial everyman – leaning on a street sign as he continues his search through unfamiliar territory.

A scathing examination of life amongst the vulnerable, lower classes, Manila in the Claws of Light is a searing and highly sophisticated work of intense, palpable realism, steeped in symbolism and allegory, yet effectively navigating its melodramatic territory with a grounded portrayal of both social and economic corruption, and the misfortunes of the impoverished in an increasingly hostile environment; desperate, hard working innocents inescapably trapped by the symbolic claws of the city.

The themes of anger, exploitation and injustice pulse vigorously through the film’s core as Brocka consistently highlights the insignificance of the working classes. Arriving in the city, Julio begins work at a perilous, commercial construction site (at a time where health and safety rules are non existent) presided over by a nefarious foreman whose callousness towards his workers – highlighted in an avoidable accident which kills one of the men – only re-inforces their apparent disposability.

A notorious scam sees the boss pay the newcomer just two-and-a-half pesos per day, despite putting a total wage of four through the books. The deceitful scheme sees the employer pocket almost half of his workers’ wages, which the employees have no choice but to allow at the risk of losing their only source of income.

Júlio risks everything during the course of the film, and it is his increasing frustration that leads to his inevitable downfall, but surprisingly Brocka does not so much justify his violence as label it the only, unavoidable option available to him.

The film may ultimately depict Júlio’s story, but Brocka ensures that the sinister city of Manila itself reigns as the film’s most compelling and significant character; ‘very good to the rich and very bad to the poor’, the harsh, ungiving city makes for an immersive and engrossing backdrop, against which Brocka impeccably stages his fateful, consuming tale.

Co-producer and cinematographer Miguel de Leon does sublime work lensing the film, capturing the gritty realism of Manila with a fluid and strangely hypnotic flair.

Brocka’s work has long been unavailable on the home entertainment format (and the large bulk remains unavailable, at least in watchable condition) but thanks to the incredible preservation work of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, culturally important masterworks like Manila in the Claws of Light can now be seen in beautifully restored editions, and broadcast to a much wider international audience; the very least these exceptional films deserve.

Special Features: 

Manila… A Filipino Film (Mike de Leon, 1975): fascinating making-of documentary featuring interviews and behind-the-scenes footage (23:01)

Manila stills and collections gallery

Visions Cinema: Film in the Philippines (Ron Orders, 1983): Tony Rayns interviews Lino Brocka and other prominent Filipino directors. (40:12)

Signed: Lino Brocka (Christian Blackwood, 1987): award-winning, feature-length documentary exploring the director’s life and work (1:23:30)

The Guardian Lecture: Lino Brocka in conversation with Tony Rayns (1982, audio only) (1:02:00)

Illustrated booklet featuring a new essay by Cathy Landicho Clark, an archive interview with Lino Brocka and full film credits.

Release Date: 20 March, 2017

Pre-order Now (click image to buy):

Please Note: The restoration of Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng liwanagwa’s made possible through the use of the original camera and sound negatives deposited by Pierre Rissient, on behalf of Cinema Artists Philippines, at the BFI National Archive since the early 1990s. The state of conservation of the negatives was critical. The negative was wet-scanned at 4K resolution. The digital restoration process required considerable effort due to the great number of issues affecting the negative: tears, scratches, warping, visible marks and halos. Color decay was also a significant problem. The film’s cinematographer, Mike de Leon, attentively guided the grading phase and validated a positive print for reference.

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