It’s a reasonable assumption to make that the average person has probably never heard of Filipino director Lino Brocka and that those who have may still have never seen any of his films. I was in the latter position when I got hold of my copy of the BFI’s new two-film set of Brocka’s mid-70s work, having heard of one of his films, Manila in the Claws of Light, but been frustrated in my attempts to see it. The arrival of this 4-disc Dual Format release is a cause for celebration then, for not only does it include Manila in the Claws of Light, along with the following year’s Insiang, but it also comes with all the proper tools for understanding the context in which Brocka made these films and how they fit into his body of work. To that end, somewhat unusually, I’d recommend that viewers who are new to Brocka’s oeuvre and Filipino cinema in general start out by watching one of this release’s best of several very generous special features. The 84 minute documentary Signed: Lino Brocka, directed by Christian Blackwood, is an entertaining, extremely informative film which introduces Brocka, his politics, his personal life and his attitudes to cinema in a concise, close to perfect package. Better still, for those afraid of spoilers, it doesn’t touch on either of the films included on this set at all, indicating what a lengthy, diverse career the director has had and begging the question, why is more of his work not available?
One of the reasons Brocka’s extensive catalogue remains elusive may be his tendency to hide his more politically contentious material in amongst several soapy offerings. A glimpse at Brocka’s filmography reveals that he often made as many as five films in a year, with perhaps only one of those being a truly personal project. But refreshingly, Brocka’s attitude to his more brazenly commercial films is free of snobbery. Footage of him directing a particularly melodramatic piece reveals that he puts great energy and passion into all his projects, making no secret of the fact that he finds the material trashy but also not seeing that as a necessarily bad thing if the end result entertains. But while he seems happy to direct a range of different types of film, Brocka cannot completely suppress his inclinations and his utter hatred of the Marcos administration under which he worked is disturbingly underlined in an interview in which he tells of how he thinks not only that Marcos and his wife should have been killed but that he would willingly, even eagerly, have pulled the trigger himself. This thirst for a particular kind of retribution fuels elements of Brocka’s work and is clearly visible in both the films in this set.
Manila in the Claws of Light
Director: Lino Brocka
Screenplay: Clodualdo del Mundo Jr.
Based on the novel by: Edgardo M. Reyes
Producers: Miguel de Leon, Severino Manotok
Starring: Bernbol Roco, Hilda Koronel, Lou Salvador Jr.
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 125 mins
Often held up as the best Filipino film of all time (a claim I sadly do not yet have the knowledge on which to comment), Manila in the Claws of Light is based on Edgardo M. Reyes novel In the Claws of Brightness but Brocka’s alteration of the title to foreground the story’s setting in the Philippines capital city is crucial in appreciating the mastery of this low-budget epic. While the film closely follows the episodic adventures of protagonist Julio as he searches for his girlfriend Ligaya, it is the slippery identity of Manila itself that most interests Brocka. Referred to by one character as a city that is very good to the rich and very bad to the poor, Manila is personified in a similar fashion to Woody Allen’s romanticising of Manhattan but this is a warts-and-all portrait and the city feels both alive and dangerous. The title refers to being on the verge of daylight, one of many symbols in the film, and the idea of claws never leaves the viewers head as numerous characters are trapped, consumed or destroyed by Manila.
While driven on by the quest narrative, Manila in the Claws of Light is made sublime by its many diversions. The film begins with Julio managing to secure work on a building site where he is taken under the wing of a group of colleagues who explain to him the numerous injustices they have to endure, the only alternative being unemployment. The fragility and expendability of working class lives is quickly illustrated by an accident on site. Brocka is not the most subtle of directors (he shows the victim’s reaction to oncoming danger three times in quick succession) but he gladly trades nuances for the assurance that his point is made and it is made all the more forcefully for Manila in the Claws of Light’s lack of elusiveness. As Julio moves around from place to place, finding new sources of money but also new ways to be cheated out of it, where his story is headed is foreshadowed several times but it makes the eventual outcome seem satisfying rather than anticlimactic. Recognising the value of entertainment as a conduit for social comment (as well as just for its own sake) Brocka speaks several times of his attempts to work out how to make his films more commercial. In seeking to include his audience rather than impress a minority of them, Brocka has created a terrific film which educates and entertains, enthrals and enrages. It lives up to its alluringly dramatic title by delivering on its promise of both high drama and social significance.
Director: Lino Brocka
Screenplay: Mario O’Hara, Lamberto E. Antonio
Producer: Ruby Tiong Tan
Starring: Hilda Koronel, Mona Lisa, Ruel Vernal
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 95 mins
Though set in the slums of Manila and seeking to highlight the degrading conditions experienced by its inhabitants, Insiang is an altogether more soapy offering from Brocka which, though generally considered among his more dramatically weighty work, would probably nestle just as comfortably among his more commercial films, albeit in a less salubrious setting. At first, Insiang continues Manila in the Claws of Light’s skilful evocation of place, with scenes from the slums placing the viewer squarely in the milieu in a similar way to the early films of Mike Leigh, particularly Meantime. But just as Manila in the Claws of Light highlighted the importance of its city over its characters with that pouting title, so Insiang highlights the prominence on an individual’s story, forsaking its vibrant cast of slum dwellers for a growing focus on the titular Insiang, her relationship with her mother Tonya and the local bully Dado who uses the mother’s affections to get to the daughter. Once again, Brocka eschews subtlety in favour of opening with disturbing real images from a slaughterhouse as hanging pig’s bodies are drained of blood and churned in machines. This brutal introduction sets the tone and, while we rarely see anything quite so graphic again, the emotional brutality is relentless. Essentially a rape revenge tale, Insiang turns away when the inevitable sexual assault occurs, trusting the audience to fill in the blanks with those slaughterhouse screams still echoing in their ears.
The most effective thing about Insiang is the title character’s surprising shift towards amorality in the third act. The events, which see Insiang put through the ringer by various characters who she looks to for protection or support, ensure we are squarely in her corner but as her endgames fall into place we question our own morality, wondering if the horrendous ordeal she has been through can really justify the calculated brutality with which she responds. A pertinent question to ask at this point also is whose side is Brocka on? Given his comments about Marcos on the accompanying documentary, it’s not an easy call to make. Ultimately, after the brilliance of Manila in the Claws of Light, Insiang feels somewhat disappointing, rarely reaching far beyond its soapy premise and exacerbating the sense of cheapness with unintentionally funny music cues that end too abruptly as scenes shift. While there is much to discuss and several scenes that stand out (in particular the final exchange between mother and daughter), Insiang feels a good deal emptier than its predecessor.
It’s wonderful to finally be able to get hold of some of Brocka’s work and, as archive footage in the documentaries make clear, the restoration jobs that have been done on these low-budget films are superb. With Manila in the Claws of Light standing out as a masterpiece, I also get the impression that Insiang may feel more significant if viewed as part of Brocka’s full body of work. Sadly, given how prolific he was and the varying critical reactions from film to film, it may continue to prove difficult to satiate my thoroughly whetted appetite further. Sadly, Brocka was killed in a car crash in the early 90s at the age of 52. Though he has since languished in relative obscurity in the English speaking world, the reputation of Manila in the Claws of Light continues to burn bright and this excellent set supplements this classic film with hours of terrific extras that provide enormous insight into Brocka the man and the artist.
Two Films by Lino Brocka is released on 4-disc Dual Format DVD and Blu-ray on 20 March 2017. Special features are as follows:
- New 4K restoration on both films
- Manila… A Filipino Film – interesting 23 minute documentary on the making of Manila in the Claws of Light
-Manila stills and collections gallery
- Visions Cinema: Film in the Philippines – Tony Rayns interviews Brocka and other prominent Filipino directors in this informative 40 minute documentary
- Signed: Lino Brocka – an absolutely fantastic 84 minute film that gives an incomplete but deftly selected glimpse at Brocka and his films
- The Guardian Lecture: Lino Brocka in conversation with Tony Rayns – 62 minutes audio only interviews
- Illustrated booklet featuring a new essay by Cathy Landicho Clark, an interview with Brocka from 1980 and full film credits