Julio Madiaga (Bembol Roco), twenty-one years old, has arrived in Manila looking for work, and finds it on a building site when he manages to be hired for a pittance, but at least it's something more than the nothing at all he currently has. However, the job involves back breaking toil, and after a few hours of sweating his way through his day in the blazing sunshine it all gets too much and he collapses. When his new workmates gather around him to see what has happened, he admits to them that he has not eaten since yesterday, and one offers him some of his lunch to tide him over for now, which he gratefully accepts. But this is not the real reason he is in the Filipino capital - he's looking for a special someone.
If your experience of films from The Philippines amount to the long run of cheaply produced genre movies that American producers made the most of under President Marcos's regime and the tax breaks that came with them, then you would likely not be prepared for the work of director Lino Brocka. He preferred to deliver a more socially responsible local cinema, and Manila in the Claws of Light was one of his most celebrated works, something of a breakthrough for him when it picked up international attention for standing out among the rougher product such as the religious fantasies and horror movies that tended to get the most focus from those who were attracted to efforts from this region of the world.
They had their place as well, but Brocka was one of those filmmakers who wished to convey a sense of the world he was familiar with, hence his concentration on issues that his fellow countrymen could sympathise with, which naturally gave those who like a spot of tourism via the movies a chance to see what his homeland was like. If this was in any way accurate it was an invitation to one of the most corrupt societies around at the time, with everyone from the authorities to the law operating on the same level of criminality; couple that with the actual criminals and you had poor Julio essentially descending into Hell, much as Orpheus had done on his pursuit of Eurydice - was Brocka aware of Brazil's Black Orpheus at all?
This was a lot more realistic in its depictions, and you could practically feel the close heat as Julio searched Manila and experienced the degradation that came with it. There was a scene late on when he stumbles into a protest and it seems like Brocka is finally getting political, but then you realise the whole film has been political, this hasn't merely been the tale of a pathetic and lovesick young man who would be better forgetting he ever heard of his girlfriend Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), it was an angry retort to the President and his regime who we are invited to judge as the biggest criminals of the lot. Yet while this would give Ken Loach a run for his money in its socialist fury, as with that British director there was a lot of heart to what were obviously deeply-felt beliefs and concerns.
You feel truly sorry for Julio, and if Roco was not the greatest of actors, that callow quality contributed very well to the pathos of his character's situation. The mystery of what happened to Ligaya consumes him, he is determined to play the knight in shining armour, but the conclusion and solution is not what he would have wanted to hear. The theme of the innocents getting duped by more worldly but also more immoral people was repeated time and again: any point where humour, a little levity, might be introduced is immediately shot down, as when the aspiring singer on the construction site is entertaining his co-workers only to be killed in an industrial accident the bosses barely seem to care about, other than the loss of another unskilled pair of hands. Julio himself ends up as a male prostitute at one stage, so desperate for money is he, but worse is to come when we finally find out what happened to Ligaya, who thought she was securing a job and education, but got neither. Not a barrel of laughs, then, but vital and vivid for all its anger. Music by Max Jocson.
[This has been released on a BFI Blu-ray/DVD double bill with Insiang under the title Lino Brocka: Two Films. Those features:
New 4K restorations of both films
Manila... A Filipino Film (Mike de Leon, 1975, 33 mins): fascinating making-of documentary featuring interviews and behind-the-scenes footage
Manila stills and collections gallery
Visions Cinema: Film in the Philippines (Ron Orders, 1983, 40 mins): Tony Rayns interviews Lino Brocka and other prominent Filipino directors.
Signed: Lino Brocka (Christian Blackwood, 1987, 84 mins): award-winning, feature-length documentary exploring the director's life and work
The Guardian Lecture: Lino Brocka in conversation with Tony Rayns (1982, 62 mins, audio only)
Illustrated booklet featuring a new essay by Cathy Landicho Clark, an archive interview with Lino Brocka and full film credits.]