A couple of weeks ago I posted on the films I was planning to check out as part of the Melbourne International Festival. Yesterday I ticked off my first two choices, the Indian noir Monsoon Shootout and Manila in the Claws of Light.
First up, Manila in the Claws of Light (or as it is otherwise known as, The Nail of Brightness). This 1975 film is considered one of the classics of Philippines cinema. I’d heard a lot about and I wasn’t disappointed.
Julio (Bembol Rocco) is a young man who leaves his idyllic life in a small rural fishing town and travels to Manila to find his childhood sweetheart, Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), who has been trafficked into the city’s sex trade. Finding himself flat broke after he is mugged, he has no choice but to take a job working on a high-rise construction site.
The conditions are brutal, he sleeps in a wooden shack next to the half finished building, and workplace deaths are common. He also has to deal with the foreman, who regularly rips the workers off for a portion of their wages and sacks anyone who complains.
He eventually loses that job and ends up homeless on Manila’s streets, where he skirmishes with criminal gangs and meets a male prostitute who tries to induct him into the world of sex work. All the while, he keeps up a vigil outside a seedy two story apartment building, the return address of the only letter he ever received from Ligaya. He eventually finds her, only to loose her again, after which snaps and decides to undertake a terrible revenge.
The contrast between the uncaring and alienating existence in the big cities and the peaceful and communal life in the rural areas is a staple of a lot of cinema in Asia (and the Global South generally). As such, Manila in the Claws of Light feels a bit dated.
That said it’s terrific film on many levels. It is a gripping portrayal of a young man who is pushed to breaking point by the corruption, poverty and constant indignities that are the daily lot of Manila’s urban poor. Remember, this was 1975. The country was under the iron rule of the US backed-dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, and being ransacked by his elite. Although there is no trace of overt politics, the film has very real feeling of dead time, of drabness and the inertia that comes with life under an oppressive regime.
That said, somehow I doubt the situation would be very different today.
Julio’s journey is not only moving, but it takes some genuinely unexpected directions. The camera work is great, as is the sound, popular Western and Filipino numbers from the time, interspersed with a continual background buzz of traffic, building noise and people. Having travelled to Manila many times, I also got a kick out of seeing what the city looked like in 1975.
Roco is terrific in the lead role. As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but wonder where I’d seen his face before. He played opposite Mel Gibson in Peter Weir’s 1981 film, The Year of Living Dangerously, in which the Philippines stood in for Indonesia.
Unfortunately, Manila in the Claws of Light is only showing once at MIFF. But the new print, restored by World Cinema Foundation, seems to be doing the rounds of festivals. If you get the chance, I’d strongly urge you to see it.
A rookie copy named Ari is assigned to a special police unit headed up by a veteran called Khan. Khan is a break all the rules, hard hitting, Dirty Harry type of cop, who believes in shooting first and asking questions later. Khan’s current target it a particularly vicious contract killer called Shiva, who is murdering various property developers at the orders of a criminal boss known as the Slum Lord. The deaths of such powerful people have resulted in massive political pressure to get a conviction as quickly as possible.
On his first day on the job, Ari watches Khan shoot two criminals suspected of being involved in the latest contract hit. The police stakeout a slum area where an informant has told them Shiva will appear later that night. He appears, just as the sky cracks open in the most incredible downpour. Ari chases Shiva through the rain, corners him, but hesitates at the last moment and the hit man escapes. Ari is disgraced and demoted to a desk job.
But just as all the elements appear to be in place for a somewhat predictable but satisfying crime film, the film suddenly reverts back to the same key moment, Ari, standing in the rain, his pistol trained on Shiva. Only this time, Ari shoots his target.
Ari is treated like a hero, but can’t help but be plagued by doubts about what he did. Ari found no weapon on Shiva, but the papers gleefully report on the pistol found at the scene and obviously planted by Khan. Ari also has to deal with the grief of Shiva’s wife and young son.
Switch to another version of reality, the key scene again, but this time Ari captures Shiva and tries to get him to testify.
And so it goes.
All the versions of reality have the same key theme, the impossibility of Ari doing the right thing given the pervasive nature of corruption, violence and exploitation of the poor. Any course of action will have negative consequences.
It’s an interesting idea and is executed relatively well. But I don’t know, something about it didn’t work for me and it didn’t quite jell. I don’t mind being disorientated by a movie, in fact it is par for the course from a good noir, but I felt Monsoon Shootout just came across as silly.
You might disagree. If Monsoon Shootout sounds like it’s up your alley it’s playing again on August 8 at 6.30pm at the Forum Theatre.