By Alan Scherstuhl
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Manila is a model of urban efficiency in the montage that begins director Lino Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Light. Shot in black-and-white, the Filipino capital embraces a new workday through a logical procession: a lone street-sweeper, a row of office workers, a cavalcade of jaywalkers and sensible sedans. Brocka's wandering camera surveys the increasingly hectic streets until it finds a high-cheekboned idler. It stops to stare. The world blooms into color.
If the Manila of these first scenes runs like a well-oiled machine, that's because it's powered by an economic system that exploits the poor as thoroughly and anonymously as a meat-grinder exploits the cow. The intimate proletarian melodrama The Claws of Light succeeds where so many political allegories fail: With ethical and emotional sophistication, it dramatizes the suffering of the disadvantaged with characters that feel individual yet archetypal.
Routinely cited as the best film ever produced by the Philippines, Manila in the Claws of Light is the 1975 masterwork of Lino Brocka, the openly gay, formerly Mormon, briefly imprisoned anti-Marcos activist and Cannes darling who put Filipino cinema on the map. The wildly prolific Brocka, who died in a car accident in 1991 at the age of 52, made more than 60 films during his two-decade-long career. (He was known to write and direct a movie within three weeks.) Most of Brocka's works aren't available outside of his native country; a full-scale restoration in 2013 has finally made The Claws of Light available to today's audiences.
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It's aged well, for the most part. Morally urgent yet beguilingly sensual, the film finds its masterstroke in never allowing its 21-year-old protagonist, Julio (Bembol Roco), an easy path to heroism. He wasn't idling in that opening after all, but observing the Chinese trading store across the street — the last known address of his missing childhood sweetheart, Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), whom he has come to the big city to find.
While his search continues, Julio takes the only job available to unskilled, uneducated probincianos like him: construction. He passes out from hunger the first day on the job, and his colleagues eagerly offer him a cigarette and part of their lunch. When night falls, he's invited to sleep at the work site alongside the other laborers or at the home of one of his new friends in a shantytown. Unable to participate in the city they're helping to build, the laborers rely on their own comradeship to get through each backbreaking day. They teach Julio how management nickel-and-dimes them, for instance, and this first half-hour lags because, as sympathetic as the men's plights are, it also feels like a staging of a workers' rights pamphlet called "Top 5 Signs of Wage Theft."
Julio returns to the streets soon after he's unexpectedly laid off from his new job. He receives more kindness from strangers — this time, from "call boy" Bobby (Jojo Abella), who brings Julio to his brothel. Julio had been steadfastly chaste for Ligaya, but he now hopes that, like Bobby, he can be gay for pay. Bobby counsels him to refrain from judgment: "My clients are people, too."
After being introduced as "Julio, our Mexican beauty," he's shuttled into a room with a Filipino john — a swishy vulgarian who quickly doffs his clothes but keeps his ring and watch on. The john is gentle, but the power imbalance between the two is clear. When the client leans in for a kiss, it's hard not to flinch when Julio does.
But Julio's repulsion is solely his own. It's Brocka's movie, not Julio's, and as a gay artist battling in the trenches against homophobia, the director achieves no small feat in divorcing his protagonist's disgust from the film's more complex portrayal of homosexuality. In this scene and in others, Roco is very much a male ingenue, with pillowy lips and a radiantly bronzed chest, and an earlier shot of Bobby servicing a customer affirms the potential splendor of gay desire — if only it weren't greased up by sweaty peso bills. There's something tragic about the initially off-putting john, too — the only companion he doesn't have to pay by the hour is his crazy-eyed Pekingese.
Julio eventually reunites with Ligaya, to whom the fates (or bare-knuckled capitalism) have been far less kind. Since her arrival in Manila, Ligaya's life has become so torturous that her story is more numbing than upsetting. The events are perfectly plausible, even predictable — yet it's hard to connect with Ligaya's pain. That's partly because the character is such a paragon of victimhood that she seems more ghostly than alive, and partly because Koronel's anesthetized performance edges Ligaya even closer toward a bird-boned fragility.
Their reunion is merely a prelude to Julio's climactic explosion of rage. Though Brocka himself organized protests against the Marcos dictatorship, he rejects politics as the easy solution, focusing instead on how powerlessness can chip away at one's humanity. The Claws of Light is a perceptive and terrifying look at the emotional costs of poverty and how those effects ripple across society. Don't cry for Manila, though; the people at the top have already figured out how to smooth out the rumblings at the bottom. It's how the trains run on time.
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