When Lino Brocka died in a car crash in 1991, the Philippines lost its outstanding director – a man who, despite the constraints of a commercial industry and vicious censorship under Marcos, succeeded in making half a dozen films of great power and universal appeal. Often they were produced cheaply and virtually on the run, with Marcos’s men instructed to prevent Brocka telling the truth about the dictatorship and the country’s poverty. But in the end, Brocka’s international reputation saved him.
Manila: In the Claws of Darkness is the most impressive of his films noirs, made with bows to the American cinema, to Italian neo-realism and to his own country’s tradition of star-driven melodramas, but with the force of a third-world director determined to say something about his own society.It is the richly romantic but realistic odyssey of a boy named Julio, who arrives in Manila from the country to search for his childhood sweetheart. The darkness of the title refers to the capital itself, which, said Brocka, exerts an invisible force on the lives of its people.
Brocka exposes the exploitation of its construction workers, some of whom were killed when Marcos jerry-built a huge complex to house his annual film festival. The movie also looks at Manila’s slum dwellers, whose children pick through huge rubbish dumps for something to sell.
Finally, it casts its eye over the nocturnal underground of the city, where prostitutes ply their trade. Brocka was gay himself and half fascinated, half repelled by the scene that meets the innocent boy as he scours the brothels of the city, only to find that his girl has been enslaved by an elderly Chinese whorehouse owner. In this situation, there can be no such thing as a happy ending. The boy murders the brothel owner and dies as yet another victim of the big city.
The film has several outstanding sequences, such as when the boy first discovers the fate of his sweetheart and when he decides to take the law into his own hands. But Brocka’s painting of life in the corrupt, teeming and polluted city of Manila is the movie’s chief glory. It is an unforgettable portrait which invites interpretation as an allegory for the whole of the underdeveloped world. The girl’s name means happiness and paradise, the boy’s means patience. Ah Tek, the brothel owner, represents money (“atik”), and his recruiter of young girls is Mrs Cruz, a reference to the cross they have to bear. But though deeply romantic, the film never lets go of its central thrust – that no one has a chance in this society unless protected by the authorities or able to pay the price.
Brocka made nearly 50 films, some of which were unashamedly commercial. One of them, Bayan Ko, had to be smuggled into France to be shown at Cannes. But even Marcos could not stop him, and he and a few others made the 1970s and early 1980s a golden age for Tagalog films in a country whose people are still among the most avid filmgoers in the world.