A gritty, dangerous world undone by the bland, nondescript characters – Two Films by Lino Brocka (BFI Boxset Review)

In partnership with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, the BFI is releasing a box set of two films by the revered Filipino director Lino Brocka: Manila in the Claws of Light and Insiang.

With Manila in the Claws of Light, Brocka was not interested in promoting his capital city to the wider world. Instead, he depicts Manila as a city of grinding poverty, corruption and sexual exploitation.

It follows Julio (Bembel Roco), a young man from a fishing village who moves to Manila in search of his hometown sweetheart. We first see him as he labours slavishly on a building site with a group of scrawny, sweaty men who can hope for only a few meagre pesos a day, if they’re paid at all, that is. The dire safety measures inevitably leads to fatal injury, which is unfortunately stripped of any shock value by dodgy acting and jarring editing.

When the loutish, corpulent boss lays Julio off, he drifts around Manila looking for work and sleeping rough. One evening, Julio, in his parochial naiveté, doesn’t realise that he’s attempting to kip in a busy cruising area. Several men, some sheepish, some pushy, approach him. In this city of unremitting sleaze and corruption, Julio is risking his life.

Manila in the Claws of Light is to be commended, then, for its honest, unvarnished depiction of the Filipino capital. Its tone and content falls in line with the transgressive, controversial work of the New Hollywood movement on the other side of the Pacific, especially films with LGBT elements like The Boys in the Band, Sunday Bloody Sunday and Dog Day Afternoon. 

The overruling problem, however, is that the power of this gritty, dangerous world is rather undone by the bland, nondescript characters. It’s quite difficult to remember their names and even harder to care about them. Unfortunately, no character is blander than Julio, who fails to convey any emotional range despite his painfully depressing foray into the big smoke. Just when you think his moment to shine has come, Bembel Roco gives a moist-eyed stare that vaguely suggests he’s a bit upset.

Alas, things get worse with Insiang, the second feature. After a sudden and graphic scene of animal slaughter, we see yet more rubbish-strewn shantytowns with pygmy matriarchs barking at litters of children as they serve up bowls of rice. It’s an ugly mess, but it sounds even worse for the audio is shrill and tinny. Also, the violin and woodwind score is risibly melodramatic, cuts abruptly from scene to scene and is horribly piercing and out of tune on several occasions.

At the centre of this soap-operaish dreariness is Insiang and her hateful mother Tonya, who holds the warped view that her daughter has an ‘obligation to serve and repay’ her now that she’s a young adult.

However, as is so typical, the supposedly strong, headstrong Tonya is vulnerable with men, especially aggressive, predatory ones. This weakness allows Dado to cockily waltz into their home, parading his slack, flaccid chest and scrawny, pipe cleaner arms. He proceeds to abuse not only Insiang but the young man who is trying to court her.

Feeling utterly alone in this hellish backwater of corrugated iron and filth, she wreaks her revenge not with Charles Bronson gusto but by carefully pitting her enemies against each other. This brings us moderate satisfaction, but the whole thing is too mawkishly televisual to care about.

The quality of Brocka’s work is subjective, but the BFI’s commitment to painstakingly restoring obscure world cinema is objectively brilliant. While the audio is sometimes harsh, both films have been transferred excellently, and the special features boast hours of documentaries and commentaries. The £28 price tag is hard to justify, though.

Dir: Lino Brocka

Scr: Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., Mario O’Hara, Lamberto Antonio

Cast: Bembol Roco, Hilda Koronel

Prd: Mike de Leon, Ruby Tiong Tan, Severino Manotok Jr.

DOP: Mike de Leon, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr.,Conrado Baltazar

Music: Max Jocson, Minda D. Azarcon

Country: Philippines

Year: 1975/76

Run time: 125 minutes, 90 minutes

Two Films by Lino Brocka is out now

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