WTF ASIA 146: Manila in the Claws of Light (1975)

Maybe it is true that if you can make it here, then you can make it anywhere. But what if you cannot make it here?

Available in Canadathe United Kingdomthe United States, and maybe a few other countries. Approximately 127 minutes.



A young man named Júlio Madiaga arrives at a construction site of “La Madrid” in hopes of getting work after a previous construction job no longer needed him. He had come here last week as well, but was told to come back today. The foreman, Mr. Balajadia, hires him this time and promises 2.50 pesos a day. That is…five cents USD?? Maybe it was better back in 1970, though not quite as good as the 3 pesos that Júlio had received in his previous job. Oh well, it will have to do.

The work is exhausting for Júlio…so much that he practically faints. A coworker, Atong, helps him back up. Júlio is probably in bad shape because he had not eaten since yesterday, and he could not afford to bring lunch today. Atong offers him some of his lunch, as long as he does not eat all of it. Another coworker, Imo, warns him to make sure that Mr. Balajadia does not notice him eating before lunch.

It is break time, and everyone is sleeping. Well…except for coworker Benny, who is singing songs from his songbook, as he always does. And the workers who are being kept up by his singing. Atong asks Júlio for his story. Reluctant to reveal too much, Júlio says that life was tough back home as a fisherman. He arrived seven months ago, taking odd jobs and sleeping wherever he could. And now he is here, making 2.50. Atong started out getting paid that much, until getting a one-peso raise during five months. But then there is something called Taiwan, which is basically a scam where the company withholds a portion of one’s wages and one cannot complain without getting fired.

Júlio starts to daydream, remembering his time back in the town with his girlfriend Ligaya. It was her who initially left for Manila with someone called Mrs. Cruz. Ligaya was not particularly excited to go either, but Mrs. Cruz had convinced her mother that it was for the best. Ligaya told him that he could come along too, but he said that he would stay and wait for her to return.

Time to sign the pay documents. Júlio asks why his records say four pesos, but Balajadia yells at him to do as he is told and sign the paper.

His coworkers later inform him that it is another scam, most likely to help the company hide even more money. Atong and Omeng give him a bit of their wages before they leave and Atong tells him that he can sleep at the worksite along with a few other coworkers who do not have homes or families.

I cannot say that the worksite accommodations are better than his where Júlio had slept before, but he is certainly eating better than he has in over a day. Imo prepares for night school, telling the others that they should finish school as well if they want to get ahead in this new era of the 1970s. Júlio says that had finished only elementary school and, at twenty-one, he is too old to start up again. The others mock Imo for his big-headedness as he leaves, but Benny notes that Imo at least has ambitions. Benny, though, is content to be where he is. Two years since he ran away, Benny is now a Manila boy through and through.

At breakfast, the home-at-work crew get philosophical. Everyone seems to be from somewhere else where the food was better and maybe life was better. But life would never become better than it was back home. If you were born with a plow, then you will die with a plow. Here in Manila, anything is possible if you just have a little money. Life may be difficult, but there is always the chance to hit the jackpot. If Benny makes it as a singer, for example, he will make it big.

Flashback Mrs. Cruz telling Ligaya and her mother about life in Manila. Did Júlio overhear this conversation or is he just imagining what Ligaya told him happened? In any case, Balajadia yells at him to stop daydreaming and get back to work.

Uh…there is an accident and Benny falls several levels onto several planks of wood. A bunch of workers crowd around him. As a group of workers attempt to take him to get (free) medical treatment, Balajadia yells at the rest to get back to work. He calls them useless slackers, as if one of their own is not probably dead. Imo, who had just been insulting Benny for singing before all of this happened, picks up Benny’s songbook from the ground. Never in all that great shape, it is now coming apart.

Júlio and Imo notice that Atong is still standing in place even after Balajadia yelled at him. Atong got injured in that accident and Júlio realizes that his foot is swollen. He tells Atong that to go home or else it would get worse, but Atong says that he cannot lose half-a-day’s pay over it. Then another worker walks over. Benny is dead. What happens to him now? Well, if no one claims his body, then it will probably be sold to a medical school for dissection. And that’s it. Júlio offers to trade tasks with Atong so that he does not have to put so much weight on his foot. Imo drops the songbook on the floor. It will most likely be buried under concrete. Benny might as well have never existed.

Júlio helps to Atong walk home to a shantytown where his family lives as squatters.

There he meets Atong’s sister Perla and his father. That evening, Atong tells Júlio his story. His family had a farm in Quezon City for generations, but a Spanish millionaire drew up papers claiming ownership. Atong’s family lost the dispute, but refused to leave. During a confrontation, one of the Spaniard’s goons shot him in the spine, leaving him paralyzed. Now they are here, in a shantytown by a black canal.

Later that night, Júlio goes to the Chinese section of the city, stands across the street from a trading company building, and gazes at one of the windows on the second floor.

He has been here before. He has been here several times before. Ligaya must be in there, behind the curtain. But how can he get in that room? Well, he can’t. So he walks away, past a row of women who are probably sex workers. He thinks of Ligaya. Has she been forced to be like those girls?

Pay day again, this time with an accountant. Uh oh. The contractor has no funds again. That means, of course, that the workers have to choose Taiwan or…nothing. Of course, Taiwan will not show up in the accountant’s books.

Júlio and Atong go to a crowded market to try to buy some new clothes. Júlio sees a woman who resembles Mrs. Cruz. He makes his way over to her and confronts her. It is not her and the woman screams out for the police. Júlio runs back to a bewildered Atong.

Over dinner, Júlio tells Atong some more of his story. He sort of has to after his antics at the market. The woman named Mrs. Cruz came to his town, saying that she was looking for girls to do factory work in Manila. She recruited Ligaya and two other girls. After a while, Júlio ran off to find her without telling anyone. There was no one really to tell, as his parents are dead, his siblings were split up to live with various relatives, and the one who watched over him was a drunk abusive uncle.

Júlio returns to the workplace housing to find that the men have been taking turns with a sex worker. Imo insists to Júlio that he had not been interested until the devil took hold of him; he basically places all of the blame for his actions on the sex worker for being too sexy and on the guards for letting her onto the site in the first place. Having spent all of his money, Imo asks Júlio for some money so that he can buy an exam book. Júlio gives him three pesos. Imo apologizes, but he has the money in his hand at that point. Júlio flashes back to the moment that he shared with Ligaya on the beach, gazing at each other until she got on the boat left with the other girls for Manila. The pimp goes over to Júlio and asks him if he wants a turn, but Júlio is not interested, not even when the pimp brings the sex worker over.

Work on the building continues until it is almost finished. Balajadia gathers all of the workers together begins the process of laying people off. Júlio is among those cut.

Júlio spends the rest of the day hanging out near the Trading Company Building. He eats at a restaurant across from it and observes as the restaurant boss abuses an employee for breaking a dish.

That night, he sees the light turn on in the room on the second floor. He sees someone through the curtain. It must be Ligaya. She touched her hair the way that the person in the window does. But the light turns off. And that is that.

Now we hear the rest of his story. He and Ligaya had been together for a long time, but her mother had higher hopes for her and did not approve of Ligaya being with a mere fisherman. After she left with Mrs. Cruz, Ligaya wrote to him only once and never responded to his letters. One day, her family received a letter from Mrs. Cruz telling them that Ligaya had run off without notice and most likely took a pair of diamond earrings. So, Júlio traveled to Manila to find her. He came with 137 pesos, which he would use to search all throughout the city until he eventually got mugged. So, he was forced to get a job at a construction site. There, he befriended a guy who theorized that “Mrs. Cruz” was just an alias and gave him a suggestion of where to find her. Júlio took his advice and was able to track her down to the Trading Company Building in Chinatown. After she left, he went into the building and asked for Ligaya. The woman who greeted her claimed to not know the name of the master’s wife and and the Chinese man shut the door on him. And that was that. She has to be there. But how can he get to her? How can he get her out?

Ah…that classic story. A naïve country boy going to the big city where everything is bad to rescue his one true love. The story lays it on a little thick at times. Compared to the relatively down-to-earth depiction of Manila, the scenes of back home are portrayed very romantically, particularly when it is just Júlio and Ligaya. Even the names lay it on. Ligaya Paraiso means Joyful Paradise while Júlio Madiaga means Julius Patience; he was willing to wait for her. Awww…
Okay, it is not that simple. But it could be, I suppose. Life in the countryside is good, as long as you are content to remain the way you are. Júlio seems to have been, no matter how tough it may have been for him. Ligaya wanted more, or at least her mother did. Certainly, more than what Júlio had to offer. And sure, being happy with what you have is fine and all, but is Júlio really fine with having not attended high school? It seems more like he is more resigned to having that avenue blocked to him. Many of the people whom Júlio befriends during his time in Manila also seem to come from somewhere else. Some of them came because their dreams were bigger than their home. Others came because they had no other choice. In any case, they start out on the bottom rung of society. Those who are lucky enough to get jobs get exploited in multiple ways. They dream of home, but they do not leave. They keep at it. Some do it because they cannot give up on the hope of making it big. And some do make it big, or at least somewhat big. Others have simply dug themselves in so much that returning home is not an option, regardless of how badly they are faring in Manila. They may try to help each other when one needs immediate aid, but there is only so much that they can do.
While the story does mostly seem to be moving in chronological order, the movie does sometime skip back and forth through time. This is not just with the flashbacks to the small town, but also in the city itself. There are scenes that seem like they are meant to take place before the previous ones, or scenes within scenes that may have happened before or will happen later. It gives the impression of continuity and repetition. That people are stuck where they are. And even if they do change, the city around them does not.
The movie is an adaptation of the magazine serial In the Claws of Brightness, or At the Verge of Dawn. It was published between 1966 and 1967. I am not sure exactly what changed during the adaptation process, but I know that the context in which they were made were different. First off, the Marco regime had barely started in 1966, but it was firmly established when attempts to adapt the story began in 1970. By that point, social unrest had begun. The rule of Marcos was around its halfway point when the movie was released in 1975, with little sign of it going away at the time, despite opposition. And Martial Law was declared from 1972 to 1981.
Director Lino Brocka may have denied that he was making a political film, but I am not sure that that passes muster. The depiction of worker exploitation, the harsh life in shantytowns and on the streets, the cynical view towards those in authority, the callousness towards death. There is more than just sad pity or cynical humor, there does seem to be a definite undercurrent of rage  And the movie is set during a time when things were actually better than things were at the time of its release. It does seem like the movie is making a statement. But perhaps it was muddled enough to make its way past the censors of the dictatorship.
The movie seems to have a rather negative view towards foreign powers who wish to control and exploit the populace, whether it be the Spaniards who had colonized them for so long, the Americans who help to prop up the Marcos regime, or the Japanese who have an economic foothold in the country. But the Chinese seem to get the brunt of the ire, and a couple more contemporary reviewers have called the film racist in its depiction. Even the name of the person who owns the Trading Company, Ah Tek, sounds like Filipino slang for money. Speaking as someone who is himself part Chinese…yeah…maybe. The Chinese are the ones seen on screen, not the Americans or Spaniards. Practically the entire city of Manila is shown to be a den of greed, exploitation, corruption, and sin. In Chinatown, however, that is pretty much all there is, with no attempt to humanize any of the people there. They are seen as separate, regardless of whether they are immigrants or if they were born in Manila. I have no idea whether this aspect of the movie came from the written serial and the critics who had problems with it did not clarify whether it did: perhaps they did not read the book either. I cannot really say one way or another if I personally feel bad about this aspect of the movie, but I am not living in the Philippines as an ethnically Chinese person. But I know that Chinese communities in various countries tend to get…reputations. You know what I mean, right?
Lino Brocka added a section of the story involving sex workers for gay men. I am not sure how well that story is handled…or the sex work angle of this movie in general, but Brocka was himself homosexual, and his reasons for including it went beyond wanting to put in additional lurid content. Apparently, there was actually additional footage of this sequence that was cut…let’s say for runtime.
I doubt that Brocka’s sexuality had much bearing on the film’s depiction of women, which is…eh…Ligaya and Perla are depicted as pure selfless beauties, but the only other woman of much importance in the movie is Mrs. Cruz. With a fake name that suggests Christianity, Mrs. Cruz hunts for innocent pretty girls like Ligaya and Perla. While Júlio is justified in his anger towards her, he often derides her as old, fat, and ugly, without prompt or anything, as if those physical traits inform her personality, or that she preys upon the beautiful youth because they possess what she does not. I realize that Júlio is not meant to be seen as the paragon of goodness, but it gets a bit much at times.
Dang…it really sounds like I am harping on this movie, doesn’t it? No, it is really good. It is gritty and rough and honest. I very much recommend it. And…yeah.




WTF ASIA 147: For Love’s Sake (Japan: 2012, approx. 134 minutes)


Available in Canadathe United Kingdom, and maybe a few other countries. It is available online in the United States, but JustWatch is being a liar.


WTF ASIA 148: The Blue Kite (China: 1993, approx. 140 minutes)


Available in Australiathe United States, and perhaps a few other countries. Also Youtube.