Sunday 30 January 2022

Manila in the Claws of Light (Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag) (1975)


Maynila: sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag

I do not think I have ever watched a Filipino movie before but based in “Manila in the Claws of Light” (“Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag”), maybe I should track down some more of those. “Manila in the Claws of Light” is an impressive and powerful movie, but also a desperately depressive one.

We follow Julio (Rafael Roco), a young fisherman who has recently arrived in Manilla, looking for his girlfriend, Ligaya (Hilda Koronel). Slowly, we learn that Ligaya left the fishing village with an older woman Mrs. Cruz, who where there to find young (pretty) girls to “work in a factory”. Since then, nobody heard from her, so Julio went to the city to find her.

He got mugged upon arrival and earns a pitiful salary as a construction worker. Here he befriends the other workers, but also witness the callousness of their employers and the dangers of the work. In his search for Ligaya he learns of his friend’s (Atong) random death due to police injustice, how that same friend’s family was displaced from their farmland by criminal developers and how his widowed wife now has to prostitute herself. Julio encounters (and has a brief career as) male prostitution. He, himself, gets mugged by the police, and when he finally finds Ligaya, she has been forced into prostitution and is now kept as a prisoner sex slave by a Chinese. It is no surprise that this ends poorly for everyone involved.

More than being the story of Julio, this is an indictment of the city of Manila itself. Julio is merely a random victim and witness to the corruption infesting the city at every level. His fishing village is the happy Eden, always in bright light, next to the grimy and dark squalor of Manila. There is an apathy and quiet acceptance that everybody cheats, that you put up with injustice because you must live and a little is better than nothing. The authorities offer no protection but is indeed part of the problem. Life at the bottom is pretty shit in Manila. The slum is disgusting, prostitution is rampant, and it is the jungle law at every level.

Even the innocent has to learn and become corrupt to survive, there is no other way. Julio tries to hold it off, tries to believe the best in people, but his naivety, endearing as it is, is constantly punished, until he himself snaps. It is heartbreaking and painful, but completely without melodrama.

A major difference with other social realistic or socially indignant movies I have been subjected to lately, is that there are no stupid hillbillies here. This is not about people too idiotic or miserable to understand their own predicament. These are normal people who understand what is going on around them but is powerless to do anything about it because the corruption is so rooted into everything around them. It makes it so much easier to root for them and the message is so much clearer and poignant to the viewer.

It is a movie from 1975, supposedly taking please in 1970, but there is nothing here that could not belong to a 21st century setting. I am not at all familiar with the Philippines and Manila, I have only been there a single time and that in a very protected environment, but I would be very surprised if this story is not repeated on a daily basis in many of the world’s megacities.

In addition to this powerful, if depressive, story, there is a surprising quality of the movie itself. Again, I have no basis for judging Filipino cinema, but compared to much of the other world cinema the List throws at me, this is very high production value. The acting is very good, but the cinematography is just amazing. There is literally no filter on how the darkness of the city is portrayed. There is a lot of nerve to these images. Only minus is a slightly oppressive soundtrack. It gets a bit tacky at times, as if the producer has watched a few too many soft-porn movies.

This is a big recommendation from me but brace yourself for a rough ride.


  1. This reminded me a lot of El Norte, which you haven't gotten to yet. When you do, remember this movie, because there are a lot of similarities. It's not one I would want to watch again any time soon. This is what I have called a "misery parfait" for years--just layer upon layer of bad things happening to everyone.

    1. Yeah, those "misery parfaits" are deserts I could usually be without. I tend to agree with you there. This one though strikes me as real and important and not sentimental as would have been tempting.