Understanding the World That Gave Birth to 'Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag'
Lino Brocka stands authoritatively atop Smokey Mountain, one hand on his hip and the other pointing towards something out of frame. A small camera crew is behind him, huddled close together under the shade of an umbrella, capturing the landscape of the dump site. Brocka utters an inaudible command, looking every bit the staunch auteur, while he offers some casting advice via voice-over.
“Most of the time, I do not use extras from the movies,” he says in the behind-the-scenes video published by The Criterion Collection. “I get people from the place itself, where I’m shooting, and you’ll be surprised […] In the movie, you will see that they’re quite natural.” We are then shown clips of the residents in the surrounding Tondo area—men, women, and children return the camera’s gaze, regarding the crew’s descent upon the landfill they call their home with varying degrees of resignation and curiosity.
The film he was shooting was 1975’s Maynila Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag, which has since been regarded as one of the greatest works of Philippine cinema, as well as a definitive Brocka piece. The story is straightforward enough—Julio (Bembol Roco), a young man from Marinduque, travels to Manila in search of his lover, Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), who has been scammed into prostitution. Martin Scorsese cited the film as a favorite—he would tackle the grittiness of urban life a year later in Taxi Driver—and restored it in glorious 4K quality through his World Cinema Foundation in 2013.
The extras used in the film—some of the most impoverished urban dwellers of 70s Manila, were undeniably real, giving the project a documentary-like texture. Cinematographer Mike de Leon (who would later go on to direct films like Batch ’81, Sister Stella, and most recently Citizen Jake) lingered on the disarray of the slums, rendering their abject living conditions with an unflinching eye.
One would be mistaken, however, to dismiss the film as a mere exercise in poverty porn. Maynila is a landmark political critique, pointed specifically towards the Marcos dictatorship and its so-called New Society.
Ferdinand and Imelda’s speeches were peppered with mention of Ang Bagong Lipunan, usually accompanied by an enticing vision of a perfect Philippines. The project to construct this glittering utopia, whose default epicenter was decidedly Manila, found expression in the massive funds poured into crafting a façade of affluence: an American writer observed in 1969 that “about 80% of the country's annual expenditures on private construction [were] for structures in [Manila].”
By 1982, the Philippines had amassed $24.4 billion in debt, much of which was spent on infrastructure. It wasn't just about actualizing the New Society, however; it was also a calculated agenda to use those structures to distract from the nation’s very real poverty.
The regime sought to beautify the city without addressing its more alarming economic concerns, and so by the 1970s, Manila was populated by dislocated masses of 65 million, while slums accommodated a sardine-tight 2,000 persons per hectare. A full 39% of families in Manila lived below the poverty line in 1977, said a World Bank report. Deemed incompatible with the New Society’s official imagery, the poor were neglected and made invisible.
While Ferdinand and Imelda projected onto the world stage images of progress and innovation in the Philippines, Brocka depicted the realities of poverty with firm conviction. He insisted on hiring non-actors as extras and shooting in real impoverished areas, all while his films centered on the lives of common people. It was his way of representing the very people who had representation withheld from them. It was his way of shining the light on the dark underbelly of the New Society for all the world to see, dispelling the myth of the New Society by foregrounding its disturbing, even dystopic, characteristics.
And yet implicit in Maynila is the reminder that these invisible citizens were nonetheless seen as viable consumers within the New Society. Throughout the film, sex workers cater to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and preferences, while businesses thrive off the labor and consumption of even the most impoverished. More than once, Roco's Julio is approached by strangers offering him a night with a sex worker. He himself commodifies his body in more ways than one, first as a construction worker, then as a call boy. Manila’s invisible are figured as one giant market, pushed by dire circumstances to participate in their own objectification. If the Marcos regime couldn’t take care of its largest sector of citizens, those citizens took desperate measures to survive in a system that didn’t favor them.
Watch closely, and you'll find signs of the New Society’s neglected citizens from the film’s onset. Camped outside Ligaya’s Binondo home at the corner of Ongpin and Misericordia, Julio is flanked by posters and graffiti with subversive messages. With his doe-eyed face adorned by expressions of dissent, Julio is placed amidst the ghosts of the New Society, their muffled voices turned into angry cries, red with alarm. As the film progresses, their suffering becomes harder and harder to tune out.