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Manila in the Claws of Light: A Proletarian Inferno

Among the six movies Lino Brocka directed between 1974 and ’76, there were three landmark works that changed the course of his career and that of Philippine cinema: Weighed but Found Wanting (1974), Manila in the Claws of Light (1975), and Insiang (1976). They impressed local critics and, in the case of the last two films, brought the director international acclaim. The triptych was part of the outcome of Brocka’s attempts at rekindling his passion for filmmaking. He had begun making commercial movies in 1970, after proving his mettle in theater and television. He reaped box-office success and prestigious awards for several melodramas and romances and a historical action film. Nine pictures and two years into his career, however, a row with a producer and a couple of rushed, poorly made movies prompted Brocka to go on a self-imposed hiatus. Upon returning two years after that, he vowed to create films that were more substantive and relevant to the national experience. “There’s too much fantasy in the movies, too much escapism,” he said. “Philippine films are wanting in content; they need more realism.” Light, popular fare had always sustained domestic filmmaking in the Philippines, but the studio system that had ruled the industry since the thirties had gone into decline by the early sixties, when its staples—dramas, comedies, adventures, and musicals influenced by Hollywood cinema and Spanish operettas called zarzuelas—began to lose ground to low-budget spectacles and racy exploitation films from independent producers. 

Brocka’s desire for change reflected the spirit of the times. President Ferdinand Marcos had imposed martial law in 1972, in a bid to remain in power indefinitely and amass a personal fortune, and was met by fierce resistance—including from middle-class youth inspired by antiestablishment and antiwar uprisings in the West. Marcos had always regarded cinema, an immensely popular medium in his country, as a political battleground. During his successful first run for president, a major Philippine studio released a biopic that helped him get elected by mythologizing him as a man chosen by fate to become a brilliant lawyer and politician. Campaigning for his second term, his supporters bankrolled a movie about his wartime exploits. During martial law (1972–81), censors banned films, meddled with scripts, and destroyed the negatives of material they deemed offensive. Censorship hindered direct representation of the political upheaval that despotism had unleashed. It narrowed the range of films that could be released, thus encouraging the escapist movie trends that Brocka abhorred—car chases, kung-fu fighting, cowboys. 

Manila functions both as stylized reportage on the state of the city during the Marcos era and as a universal tale of life and death in a metropolis.”

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