Lino Brocka's 1975 film Manila in the Claws of Light rightly earns its place in the ever-expanding library of the world's best films within The Criterion Collection. It's a tough and honest portrayal of static economic mobility set against the backdrop of a booming metropolis. A young man searching for a clear path in life and the woman he loves experiences the toughest of life lessons that hard work is not always rewarded. It's a tough film but also beautiful in how it gets to know the characters and their hopes for a better future than the past they were born into. With an impressive newly restored video transfer, a strong audio mix, and some informative bonus features, Manila in the Claws of Light may not be for everyone but it's well worth viewing - multiple times if necessary. Recommended.
"Back home if you're born with the plow, you die with the plow."
If you aim to distill Lino Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Light down to a simple singular theme, I think "Life is hard" probably sums things up. Featuring terrific performances from Bemboi Roco and Hilda Koronel, Manila grounds a hard story about depressive poverty and systemic economic stagnation in a story about the belief in hope and optimism. It's not a film that pulls its punches, but it isn't entirely such a dour experience that one need worry about feeling horrible about life when the final credits roll.
Júlio (Bemboi Roco) is a "provinciano," a fisherman who has traveled from his rural home to the big city of Manila. Strapped for cash, he takes a job working construction hoping that the hard work will lead to good pay. He quickly learns that even with a promised wage, the bosses have numerous schemes employed to knock his pay and keep him working for next to nothing - because it's the only money he can get. But Júlio is undeterred. He came to Manila not only for opportunity, but to find his lost love Ligaya (Hilda Koronel). After years apart he doesn't know what happened to her, but he's determined to find her and live a happier life.
Suffice to say, Manila in the Claws of Light isn't exactly a joyful film. There is a constant appreciation for hope and optimism while being honest to the harsh realities of tragedy. We get to meet Júlio, Ligaya, and each of the characters they encounter and learn a little about them and why they live and toil in Manila. They all want a better life than the one they started out with. Similar to any number of coming of age stories - or one that I most recently reviewed - Midnight Cowboy - there is the dreamer's belief that the big city will somehow save you. Sure, there are more opportunities in a major metropolitan area, you're more likely to hit it big there than on a farm, but there's a cost. You have to work ten times harder for half as much and that proves to be too high of a price tag for most. Manila explores that life against political turmoil in minute detail and it's tough. Brocka doesn't pull his punches.
I'm usually averse to movies steeped too heavily in displeasure. I don't need the power of cinema to remind me that life is hard. Nor do I absolutely require movies to be pure escapism in a consequence-free world. I just like a balance to the feelings. If a film is going to be sad, I need a little joy in the mix just so that there is an acknowledgment of a possibility that life can be a happy experience. When Júlio finds Ligaya, you have that moment of joy. Time doesn't matter for these two long lost lovers. Their years apart aren't a problem. The life Ligaya was forced into isn't an issue for Júlio. For a brief moment, they're together and they're happy. They're allowed the chance to dream of a happy life together. It's the journey Lino Brocka takes with his characters to get to this point that makes Manila a beautiful piece of work and then what happens after the two lovers reunite a tragic reminder of reality.
Manila in the Claws of Light isn't an easy film. It doesn't hold back nor does it make light of the plight of exploited workers who simply have nowhere else to go but stay exactly where they are. If you want, you could infer the politics of the film as Brocka wears a few of the themes on the shredded shirt sleeves of the characters. It's clear this film is a meditation of an exploited people and how their own dreams for success are used against them - especially during the period when this was filmed. However, I would suggest that you absorb the film for itself rather than focus on the politics. That is certainly an appreciable element, but to solely focus on that side of things you may lose the human factor - and that's the piece that makes this film such a grand accomplishment. You don't have to be experiencing the same political turmoil to understand and relate to the characters.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Manila in the Claws of Light arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection. Pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in the traditional Criterion Collection clear hard case. Included is a booklet containing an impressive essay by José B. Capino. The disc loads to an animated main menu with Criterion's standard main menu mapping.
Manila in the Claws of Light features a beautiful transfer mastered from a fresh new 4K restoration. From the opening cards, it sounds like a lot of work went into removing dirt, debris, scratches, discoloration, warps, and tears. True to Criterion's standards, the transfer is in terrific shape. Details are sharp and clear allowing you to appreciate facial features, beads of sweat, the tattered clothing, and the harsh working conditions of the construction site Júlio calls home at the opening of the film. Colors are bold and warm indicative of the hot and humid location. Primaries are healthy with plenty of pop, blues and red are prominent throughout. Black levels are inky, but there is some occasional haziness that creeps in and softens the image a bit. That could be indicative of the source, or something that simply couldn't be fixed in the restoration process. Either way, these moments aren't too numerous or lengthy, but they're present just the same. Considering all things, this is a damn impressive transfer.
Manila in the Claws of Light features a sturdy Tagalog LPCM 1.0 audio track with English subtitles. The mix can sound a bit front-loaded without much spacing in places. There are a few stretches that sound as if the dialogue was dubbed in later as they can sound a bit flat and inorganic to the rest of the soundscape. The construction site is a solid location highlight as there is an appreciative cavernous quality as the sounds of the heavy construction work and voices echo around the cinderblock walls giving a claustrophobic trapped feeling. Busy city streets also play nicely conveying the heavy traffic of people and cars while evoking the sense of isolation the characters feel surrounded by other people. Free of any serious age-related issues - I did notice a couple breaks and small pop or two, but nothing distracting - this is an effective audio track that remains true to the film.
As there aren't very many bonus features available on this Blu-ray release of Manila in the Claws of Light, what's here is pretty damn good. The mix of archival making of documentaries as well as a new featurette about Brocka and the making of the film offers up a terrific collection of informative extra features.
Martin Scorsese Intro (HD 2:03) Scorsese introduces the film giving a little backstory about Brocka while briefly detailing the different organizations that partnered to restore the film.
"Manila"… A Filipino FIlm (HD 22:58) This is an archival making-of documentary that was shot in 1975 concurrently with the making of the film. It's a very interesting look at the film and how it was made in the roughest parts of Manila.
Signed: Lino Brocka (HD 1:23:40) This is a very impressive and detailed documentary about Lino Brocka and how his work almost single-handedly changed the entire Filipino film industry.
Challenging The Viewer (HD 19:01) This is a very fascinating look at the era of Lino Brocka's work and the harsh dictatorial time period that he made his movies as well as his political activism.
I didn't know what to expect going into Manila in the Claws of Light. It was a film I was aware of but hadn't ever seen, nor had I the impetus to seek it out. So to that end getting to review this film was a fortuitous event as I'm glad I got to sit down and appreciate it. Like many films of its type, it's not an easy movie to watch. You're not going to pull this one out to feel good, but to appreciate how effective and well made the film is. As Lino Brocka's most famous film, it's easy to understand why its held in such high regard. It takes time to care for the characters while staying true to the economic and political upheaval of the era. The Criterion Collection has done a great job bringing this film to Blu-ray with a beautiful A/V presentation and a solid informative assortment of bonus features. It may not be an easy or fun film to watch, but this Blu-ray release of Manila in the Claws of Light from The Criterion Collection is an easy one to call Recommended.