Lino Brocka, “Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag” (1975).

Mar 21 2010

Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag

Some random short notes (sorry, I’m really dispensing with the synopsis this time, and yes, there are major spoilers below):

1. This marks the second time I’ve seen a Brocka film where I kind of wished the whole film was filmed like the credit sequence: Maynila begins with stark black-and-white cinematography by Mike de Leon that makes the city look like it was filmed in an earlier decade. It’s of a city slowly waking up — its streets half empty save some horse-drawn calesas and people sweeping refuse from the night before — until it bleeds into color when we see Julio Madiaga at the corner of Ongpin and Misericordia. (In 1974′s Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (see my blog entry here) the horrifying opening scenes before the credits are shot in a beautiful speckled amber.)

2. We don’t quite get the poetry of Edgardo Reyes’ opening in his novel, describing the ragtag construction of a building as “a skeleton quivering hesitantly in the wind” –

Sa simula, siya’y isang kalansay na nakatalalan sa hangin. Isang matayog, buhaghag na bunton ng patapong mga piraso ng tabling gato, mabukbok, mabitak, masalubsob, pilipit, kubikong, na pinagpaku-pako nang patayo, pahalang, patulibas, kabit-kabit nang walang wawa, tulad ng kahig-manok sa lupa… (1)

– and I had wished that Brocka had lingered a bit longer on the daily routine of work. In a fascinating interview with Rogelio Mangahas, Reyes, a former construction worker himself, says that his “ambition in life was to become a labor leader”, and that the workers were foremost in his mind when he wrote his novel. It’s a pity, then, that we don’t see enough of the rhythms of labor in the film, but it’s understandable, as Julio gets laid off halfway through the movie.

3. What I wrote previously about Brocka’s seeming lack of subtlety in his films still applies here. The names don’t make it easier, though they’re neither Brocka’s nor screenwriter Clodualdo del Mundo Jr.’s fault; they’re taken straight from Reyes’ novel. The protagonist’s surname, Madiaga, is a reference to “patience” (“matiyaga” means “patient”), and his girlfriend’s name is Ligaya Paraiso – literally, Happiness Paradise. (Note to those unfamiliar with the Philippines: it’s not as tendentious as it sounds, as people really can be named Ligaya – including, perhaps, the most famous Ligaya of them all – in much the same way that Grace and Joy are proper names in the U.S. and elsewhere. Ah, but only in the Philippines can you find people actually named Cherry Pie, though, and only Filipinos have relatives you can call “Auntie Baby.” But still.)

Best (or worst) of all is the shifty and lecherous Chinese villain’s name, Ah Tek, which sounds like “atik”, ’70s slang for “money” (a reversal of the word “kita,” which means “salary”). And so you can imagine what the dialogue in the film literally sounds like to Tagalog speakers:

I went to see Money, but I was told that there was no Happiness there,

or

I wandered the streets of Manila looking for Happiness, but couldn’t find her.

4. Here’s one more example, featuring a construction worker with aspirations to be a professional singer. He falls in an accident — literally after he finishes singing “The Impossible Dream” — his body carried away Pieta-like by the other workers. There’s a close-up of his tattered copy of a songhits magazine, with Nora Aunor on the cover; the camera follows the magazine as another worker picks it up exceedingly slowly.

“Benny was unlucky, wasn’t he?” asks one. “It’s because he was too happy,” says another. We discover that Benny has died and that his corpse will likely be donated to a medical school because he has no relatives. The worker throws the magazine to the ground; the camera focuses on it for a beat before someone enters the frame with a wheelbarrow and spills gravel on it.

5. So, back to that lack of subtlety: this has usually been explained as Brocka working in a melodramatic style – that is, “melodramatic” not as a pejorative, but as a particular cinematic mode. But I find that his films just aren’t… mannered enough to communicate that he’s using melodrama self-consciously. So when the camera focuses on Julio’s trembling, clenched fists to further underscore his anger, is it an allusion to more theatrical modes of acting? When Hilda Koronel clutches her hair in overwrought dismay as she relates her imprisonment, is it possible that Brocka is utilizing culturally specific cinematic shorthand? Somehow I doubt it.

6. Speaking of the novel as source material, it’s interesting to note that two of the more provocative scenes in the film don’t come from Reyes. (I’ll write about the other scene later, as it kind of involves the shifty and lecherous Chinese villain.) After Julio loses his job and has to leave the lean-to where the construction workers are staying, he ends up sleeping in a park. We get a good illustration of his naivete here, as he clearly has no idea it’s a cruising spot, and soon he falls in with a group of male prostitutes and finds himself in an inadvertent ménage-a-trois with a fluffy Pekingese. The subplot is interesting, in any case, not just because of the set design (by Soxy Topacio!), but because it anticipates the plot of 1988′s Macho Dancer (young man from the provinces, woman lost in the streets of Manila, the seamy world of call boys and strippers).

7. (MAJOR SPOILER). When I first saw Maynila back in the early ‘90s*, I was struck at how uncomfortably anti-Chinese it was; two decades later, I realize I wasn’t wrong. It’s arguably not as pronounced as it is in Reyes’ novel; one of its refrains, for instance, goes:

Chinatown. Sa langhap, sa tanawin, sa tibok, sa kaluluwa – Chinatown. Dito’y madarama mo na ikaw na kayumanggi ang dayuhan, hindi silang madidilaw. (146)

Or in English:

Chinatown. In smell, in sight, in pulse, in soul – Chinatown. Here you will feel that you who are brown is the outsider, not they who are yellow.

Mangahas, in his 1986 introduction, contextualizes Julio’s final desperate act by writing that, in 1966 when Reyes finished his novel, one had yet to see a deeper political consciousness on the part of Filipino writers, much less an ideologically coherent body of anti-imperialist literature. Because of the lack of class analysis back then (I’m paraphrasing this from Tagalog), there were misconceptions about who comprised the negative forces in society (lvi-lvii).

It was only in the Seventies, Mangahas writes (after the declaration of Martial Law and the consequent detention of political prisoners), that progressive writers began to see more clearly that (I’m directly translating this and the following quotes from Tagalog) “American imperialism and its domestic conspirators were the real forces [my emphasis] that crippled the livelihood, politics, and culture of Philippine society.” “One cannot ascertain,” Mangahas writes, “whether Reyes’ specific objective in having Julio kill Ah Tek was simply to revenge Ligaya’s death” (lvii).

Chinese in the Philippines (and in Southeast Asia in general) have long been historically associated with the mercantile class, but it goes way beyond benign stereotype; witness the ugly spate of kidnappings of Chinese Filipinos that continues unabated. Seen as perpetual outsiders, they’re seen in the film as abusive representatives of the bourgeoisie (in one scene, Julio witnesses a Chinese restaurant owner slap a waitress) and, as the name Ah Tek shows, capital itself.

But in his film, Brocka almost unforgivably tips his hand, in one of the other crucial new scenes: that of a Kabataang Makabayan rally with Julio and his friend watching from the sidelines. (Watch for director / actor / writer Mario O’Hara in a cameo as the protest organizer with the bullhorn.) At a time when labor and student organizers could easily be “disappeared” by the Marcos regime, it’s arguably the most fearless part of the film, a provocation. But the fact that this scene of anti-imperialist chants (with O’Hara yelling “Makibaka! Huwag matakot!” and exhorting the listeners to smash capitalism and not be afraid) is immediately followed by Julio’s murder of Ah Tek with an ice pick – this was just distasteful.

8. In his introduction at the Pacific Film Archive screening, Steve Seid talked about how critics have either pronounced Maynila or 1976′s Insiang (see my blog entry here) as Brocka’s best film. I think I’m going with the latter.

———-

*I had the great fortune to see Maynila and many other films in a fantastic Philippine Studies graduate seminar back in the spring of 1991, with Benedict Anderson, one of my former thesis advisers (coincidentally discussed in Michael Guillen’s recent article on Twitch). Unfortunately, many of the copies the Southeast Asia Program had at the time lacked subtitles. Being (if I remember correctly) the only native Tagalog speaker in the class at the time, I was asked (or tasked – I can’t remember which, though I’m fairly sure I received beer money for it, not that I could have legally purchased alcohol at the time) to write detailed synopses for the unsubtitled films.

So I had the dubious pleasure of spending hours upon hours watching a film the first time, then painstakingly pressing the rewind button and transcribing bits of dialogue for a second slow run-through, then watching them again on a bigger screen in class. I write “dubious” because some of the films were crap (like Tony Reyes’ 1990 parody of a buddy flick, Tangga en Chos: Beauty Secret Agents, a vehicle for Joey de Leon and Jon Santos), or interesting crap (Peque Gallaga’s Virgin Forest from 1985), but some were just plain amazing (Mike de Leon’s Batch ’81, from 1982).

Watching an unsubtitled film via synopsis couldn’t have been very fun for my classmates. (The films weren’t screened for class discussion in any case, but to impart some local flavor.) What was fun, though, was screening Macho Dancer to a roomful of students – historians, political scientists, anthropologists, Army Intelligence guys and maybe a former nun or two among them. Oh, the squirming.

Reference: Edgardo M. Reyes, Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila: De La Salle University Press, 1989).

One response so far

  1. great breakdown of the film–love the analysis/explanation of the significance of the nomenclature. Hope to see the movie someday–maybe I can wrangle a screener somewhere!

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