Lino Brocka (director)
BFI Film (studio)
126min plus 94min (length)
20 March 2017 (released)
These two rarities by Filipino director Lino Brocka can finally be seen and appreciated thanks to Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Both Manila in the Claws of Light and Insiang deal with the harsh realities and social injustices of Philippines life in the 1970’s. Powerful and arresting without any doubt while at the same time without suggesting that life might get better anytime soon, these admittedly obscure gems don’t make for easy watching.
MANILA IN THE CLAWS OF LIGHT (1975) concerns Júlio Madiaga (Bembol Roco), a young man who leaves his poverty-stricken island in search for a better life in Manila, the capital city. Although he finds work a construction worker he quickly realizes his new employers pay him less than he earned at his previous job, in fact, the company seems to exploit their workers who “can take it or leave it”. At the same time he searches for Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), his betrothed who, weeks earlier, has also been brought to Manila by a Mrs. Cruz with the prospect of finding better paid employment. What he doesn’t know is that Mrs. Cruz is merely an alias and the woman is in fact a human trafficker who lures pretty young girls to the capital with promises of good work, only to enslave them as prostitutes. Meanwhile, Júlio befriends several of the men at work, including Atong (Lou Salvador, Jr.) and Pol (Tommy Abuel) though tragedy strikes when the former gets killed following an arrest. With the building almost complete the company only keeps a handful of construction workers while the rest are given their marching orders, Júlio among them. Aimlessly drifting through the city’s streets in search for work and for Ligaya, he befriends various characters including a rent boy who temporarily puts him up in his apartment and advices him to come along to a brothel for gay men for this is where the money is. Reluctantly, the broke and somewhat naïve Júlio accepts though after an encounter with his first client we can assume that he had a change of heart for a short time later he sleeps rough at his former work place… the construction site. By chance he spots a ramshackle building from the café he’s sitting in and a woman who reminds him of Mrs. Cruz. When he enters the building and enquires about Ligaya he is told that no one knows her though he has a feeling that something’s not quite right. His suspicions are confirmed when, by default, he bumps into her sometime later and she reveals her story of woe and tragedy to him and how she is kept as a prostitute. Worse, she is the mistress of Ah-Tek (Tommy Yap), the nasty Chinese brothel owner with whom she has a baby. Júlia and Ligaya plan on escaping back to the island they both come from despite the fact that she is being watched by Ah-Tek. On the night of the escape Ligaya fails to turn up at the secret meeting point and the final tragedy unfolds…
Both Bembol Roco (Manila was his film debut!) and Hilda Koronel deliver terrific performances at the hand of director Brocka. A no-holds-barred portrait of the harsh realities our two protagonists find themselves in, superbly shot by Miguel de Leon.
INSIANG (1976) welcomes back Hilda Koronel in the title role, though this time ‘round her luck doesn’t seem to fare much better in a story of betrayal and revenge.
Insiang is the daughter of Tonya (Mona Lisa), an ungrateful dragon of a mother whose foul-tempered outbursts worsened when her husband left her for another woman. Crammed in a ramshackle hut in what appears to be a shanty town in the outskirts of Manila, both Tonya and Insiang work hard to make ends meet though Insiang works much harder and is also at the mercy of her constantly nagging mother and various relatives crammed into the tiny hut until Tonya kicks half of them out. Tonya also has a bit of a gambling habit, an addiction she shares with her toy-boy Dado (Ruel Vernal). Meanwhile, Insiang dreams of getting married to Bebot (Rez Cortez) though he’s hesitant as he claims he doesn’t earn enough to provide for a future wife or indeed a future family. Forced to clean and iron laundry until late into the night and put up with daily drudgery, the increasingly frustrated Insiang finally succeeds in talking Bebot into running away with her and the two rent a room in a cheap hotel in Manila. But the following day Insiang has a nasty awaking when she realises that Bebot has left the hotel and her… something the scheming Dado mentioned to her some time earlier when he claimed that Bebot has a ‘wandering eye’. Although the humiliated Insiang despises Dado, she pretends to return his feelings when he comes on to her, if only out of spite and to hurt her mother. Planning a clever revenge plot, Insiang gets what she wants while Dao and Tonya get their much-deserved comeuppance though with her life in tatters, Insiang comes to realise that she may have gone one step to far.
Once again, the leads throw powerful performances and it is quite intriguing to get an insight into a culture we know very little about, not to mention the hardship and poverty many Filipinos seem to endure.
The 2-Disc set not only also contains the restored films but also numerous Special Features including a feature-length documentary about director Lino Brocka.