Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Urban Jungle

Film: Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Brightness/The Nail of Brightness/The Claws of Light)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

There’s a particular style of film that seems to really hate the poor. It wasn’t too long into Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (called variously Manila in the Claws of Brightness, The Nail of Brightness and The Claws of Light) that I realized that’s exactly what sort of film I had on my hands. Our hero, Julio Madiaga (Bembol Roco) starts the film as an underpaid itinerant construction worker. Despite his low pay, his bosses steal from him, skimming off the top of his negligible salary and refusing to pay overtime.

Julio has come to Manila from the provinces to search for his girlfriend Ligaya (Hilda Koronel). Ligaya was taken away from the village by a Chinese woman who promised her a good job in a factory—free food and enough money to send some back home to help with the education of her siblings. Ligaya doesn’t want to go, but does because of the promise of money. It’s not a difficult guess to figure out exactly what actually happened to Ligaya—she’s essentially be sold into prostitution. Julio, however, is slow on the uptake and na├»ve enough to not realize this for some time.

Julio’s life in Manila is not a happy one. He’s eventually laid off from his construction job and ends up with a group of male prostitutes. This is as unpleasant for him as you might expect, but he refuses to leave the city without Ligaya. At every turn, Julio, Ligaya, and his friends are screwed by the system, spat upon, trodden upon, and generally treated like the disposable human cargo they are in Manila. It plays a lot like El Norte but without the language barrier for the characters.

So what’s the emotional center of this film? One might think that it’s little more than “life sucks,” and I’d settle for that description of the film. Every time things look up even briefly, they immediately take a turn down (more shades of El Norte, although this one came first). Julio gets back on his feet temporarily and discovers his friend from the construction site has died in prison over a minor conflict. He tries to befriend his late friend’s sister, and then her house burns down and she disappears. Do we really have any right to think that things will be different when Julio finally locates Ligaya in the city?

Of course we don’t. This isn’t a film about redemption, or love, or battling our way through adversity or anything like that. It’s a film about what it’s like to be a member of the class of people for whom everyday existence is a struggle for survival. If you contrived to have the worst possible outcome for every encounter in this film for Julio, this film is what you’d come up with. He’s constantly a victim regardless of anything he does and anything that happens around him.

So maybe that’s what makes this film important. It’s claimed that Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag is the greatest film to come from the Philippines, and that may be true; I don’t have a lot of experience with Filipino cinema. If that is true, though, it makes me wonder about the rest of the country’s cinema. This is not an enjoyable experience. We’re given a complete underdog character with nothing going for him, and the entire two hour plus running time is little more than us watching him get kicked over and over until it finally ends.

I hate films like this. I really do. Even when the film is a good one with solid production value and credible acting, it ends up just making me feel unclean at the end. Everything here is unclean and tainted, and the briefest moments of happiness are immediately destroyed. It’s a big ball of depression and oppression and social evil.

So here’s the thing—it’s not a bad film. It’s just not that much of a great one, because the story has been done to death. It’s not a film to watch when you’re in a low mood, because this will only intensify it and make it worse. If you watch it in a good mood, it will kill your mood completely. So I guess the biggest issue with it is that there’s not a good time to ever watch it, unless (like me) you’re committed to completing The List.

Why to watch Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag: The Filipino version of a story you know.
Why not to watch: Every culture seems to have this story, so you’ve definitely seen it before.


  1. Good call on the comparison to El Norte. I saw them quite a ways apart and didn't make the connection. I liked El Norte better, but as you said, neither is in any way happy.

    The thing that I found interesting about Maynila was that is reversed the genders of the common story. Usually it's the woman who comes to the big city trying to find out what happened to her older sister and then ends up going down the same path the sister did. In this case it was a man who came to the city and didn't fare any better.

    1. Yeah, I'll give it that--and that's a connection I didn't make. This is probably a better film than I've given it credit for being. For me, there are only so many films of this plot that I can take before I'm kind of done with them in general, though.

  2. "I don’t have a lot of experience with Filipino cinema"

    I suspect neither do most of the non-Filipino critics who make the "greatest Filipino film ever" claim. I've not seen the film myself (it's on the to-do list after I found it on Youtube recently), but I know my own experience of Filipino cinema is limited to three Weng Weng films and a few other dodgy 70s/80s exploitation films. I know bugger all about "serious" Philippines cinema apart from this film (and that only by reputation), which I suspect is true of most Western film viewers; the problem is that so much of Filipino cinema, even relatively recent stuff, is lost (they only established an archive there two years ago) and I don't think their films travel much internationally outside the festival circuit, so it's hard to really appraise the justness of "greatest Filipino film ever"...

    1. And it's harder being someone completely outside of the culture looking in. It would not shock me if there are dozens of Filipino films greater than this one, more interesting, more compelling, better shot, etc.

      All I really know is that I'm not the person to judge that.

  3. One thing that struck me watching it that makes it different from other down-on-luck movies, is that none of these people are trash who cannot get their act together. Under normal circumstances they would do fine, but the place kills people. This is an indictment of the city more than anything.

    1. Yeah--I agree. That's one of the reasons that it reminded me of El Norte, which is two hours of being punched in the face.