Two Films by Lino Brocka (Manila - In the Claws of Light/Insiang) Review
Lino Brocka was born in 1939. He entered the film industry by working on advertising films. He was script supervisor on two Roger Corman productions shot in the Philippines, directed by Monte Hellman (Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury, both 1964) and assisted with the dialogue of local non-English-speaking actors. He said he found Hellman's working methods very slow, which may well have influenced Brocka's own practices when he made his his directing debut in 1970. He was prolific from then on, often making three or four or five films in a year, only a fraction of which have been shown in the West. The Filipino film industry prioritised speed and a rapid output, with films often shot in five weeks. The resulting films were in popular genres – having to compete with films imported from Hollywood and elsewhere - and aimed purely for local consumption. Many films only had a week to find an audience, sometimes a second if they were particularly successful. Given these conditions, and strict censorship, it took bravery for producers to put up the money for more serious work. Brocka used popular forms to “smuggle” social criticism and pictures of a society under the corrupt government of Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, a country which was under martial law at the time the two films in this set were made. In some ways Brocka's films resemble some of those of Fassbinder, another gay man who died young (Brocka, aged fifty-two, in 1982 in a car accident) and another very prolific director who also drew on popular forms, such as melodrama, to enable his criticisms of the society around him. Brocka has had a major influence on younger Filipino directors, including Lav Diaz, who included Brocka as a character in his film Evolution of a Filipino Family. This boxset comprises two of Brocka's films, made in the mid-Seventies when the Philippines were under martial law.
Manila – In the Claws of Light (Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, 1975, 126:22)
Twenty-one-year-old Julio (Rafael Roco, Jr) lives in a small rural village in the Philippines. Ligaya (Hilda Koronel) is the love of his life, but one day she leaves for Manila on the promise of work and money available. When she doesn't return and no one hears from her, Julio travels to the big city in search of her.
The film begins in black and white before fading up into colour just after the opening credits, and it's clear that we're in the middle of a run-down dangerous place, not the country of exotic beauty that Imelda Marcos, known for her love of luxury and her vast shoe collection, wanted to promote. The story begins in medias res, with a starving Julio looking for work on a construction site, and the backstory is filled in by means of flashbacks, at first jagged memories on screen for not much more than a second, later playing out more fully. Julio's time at the site is marked by a fatal accident which the crew hide from the foreman in case they lose their jobs. (As Brocka points out in the documentary Signed: Lino Brocka elsewhere in this set, this had a terrible real-life parallel six years after the film was made, when the Manila Film Center collapsed because work was continuing before the concrete foundations were fully set, and the victims were buried alive because they could not be rescued.) It's not hard to work out what Ligaya's fate has been, and Julio at one point has to turn tricks with male clients to keep food on his table.
Manila draws on neo-realism in its use of real settings but the story it tells is melodrama which you sense won't end well. The violence and squalor of the city are contrasted with the idyllic life Julio and Ligaya led in the countryside, with traditional music on the soundtrack. These flashbacks, and the friendships Julio makes in the city, give warmth to a grim tale. Not for nothing does Brocka have Julio stand by a street sign called Misericordia.
The film became Brocka's first to have a UK cinema release, in 1981 under the shortened title Manila. It was shown on Channel 4 on 30 March 1983 and again on 3 August 1989 (billed, confusingly, as Manila In the Claws of Darkness). This is its first release for home viewing in the UK.
Insiang (1976, 94:04)
Manila's co-lead, Hilda Koronel, plays the title role in Insiang, living in a slum with her mother Tonya (Mona Lisa) and Tonya's younger lover Dado (Ruel Vernal), who is quick to take advantage of both mother and daughter. Insiang's boyfriend Bebot (Rez Cortez) is hapless to intervene as the inevitable assault comes, and so Insiang has to take matters into her own hand.
Plotwise, Insiang is again a melodrama leading to a violent conclusion. Made four years after the imposition of martial law, its picture of Filipino society is less direct in its criticism than that in Manila, but it's still far from the image the authorities would have liked people to see. The script was originally rejected by the censor, only to be passed when Brocka resubmitted it with a Biblical verse as an epigraph. Insiang became the first Filipino film to be invited to Cannes, but not without the efforts of the censor to block it. They delayed passing it until it was too late to have the negative airmailed to France, so producer Ruby Tiong Tan had to transport it herself. Insiang did not receive a UK cinema release and there is no record of a television showing, so apart from festivals and other one-off showings (see below) this is the first time it has been commercially available in the UK.
(Thanks to Sheldon Hall for details of the films' television showings.)
The BFI's dual-format release of Two Films by Lino Brocka comprises two Blu-ray discs and two DVDs. Checkdiscs of the Blu-rays were received for review. Manila carried a X certificate (eighteen and over) on its cinema release, but it's now a 15, as is Insiang. Squeamish viewers may wish to note that the opening credits of Insiang play over footage shot in an abattoir, where Dado works: genuine footage not in the filmmakers' control, which is why the BBFC can pass it uncut. The running times above include WCP logos and restoration captions.
Both films were restored by the World Cinema Project, an organisation set up by Martin Scorsese to oversee the restoration and preservation of world cinema, particularly from countries where this has been historically problematic. Previous WCP restorations have been released in the UK, for example Eureka/Masters of Cinema's three-film boxset and another BFI release, Black Girl/Borom Sarret. Both transfers are derived from 4K scans of the original camera negatives. Both needed considerable repair of damage and, in the case of Manila, colour fading as well. Two shots in Insiang had to be replaced from a 35mm positive print. Manila is in the ratio of 1.85:1 and Insiang in 1.37:1. Academy Ratio seems unusual for a film made in 1976, but I'm not qualified to comment as to how viable that was in Filipino commercial cinemas. It certainly looks like it was composed for Academy, though most shots seem protected for the wider ratios I would suspect many cinemas showed the film at. Neither film looks at all slick, being shot on real locations and I suspect natural light much of the time. Grain is certainly present, but this is, I suspect, how the film was intended to look, especially as the cinematographer (Mike (Miguel) de Leon) of Manila and the producer (Ruby Tiong Tan) of Insiang were involved in the restorations.
Both films have mono soundtracks, presented in LPCM 1.0. Particularly in Insiang, these do sound harsh, due to acknowledged shortcomings in the state of the available sound elements and, I wouldn't doubt, the circumstances of production. These Tagalog-language films have optional English subtitles available.
On the same disc as Manila are three extras, two of which were provided by Mike de Leon. Manila… A Filipino Film (23:01) is a making-of documentary directed by de Leon, featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Brocka and the two leads. This is presented in HD at a ratio of 1.33:1. A self-navigating stills and collections gallery (4:40) includes stills for the film (some spoilers), lobby cards, programme notes and even a ticket stub.
Visions Cinema was a magazine programme in the early years of Channel 4, dedicated to films from outside your local cinema, and a more challenging alternative to the BBC's long-running review show, then presented by Barry Norman. On 28 September 1983, it devoted its whole forty-five-minute slot (including a commercial break) to “Film in the Philippines” (40:12). Presented by Tony Rayns, this surveys filmmaking in the country, including clips from films old and then-recent, with interviews with Lino Brocka and a representive from an earlier generation, Miguel Conde (1915-1985) and one of the few female directors working in the industry, Marilou Diaz-Abaya (1955-2012).
The second disc, containing Insiang, features the documentary, Signed: Lino Brocka (83:33). directed by Christian Blackwood in 1987. For the most part Brocka talks, in English, to an off-screen interviewer (who sounds like Derek Malcolm, but he's not credited). As well as discussing his career, Brocka talks about his political views and his clashes with the censors. It's not hard to miss his disgust at the Marcos regime and the disaster of the Manila Film Center (mentioned above). There are clips from several of his films – not in the best of shape for the most part – with some emphasis on 1970's Tubog sa ginto, one of the first films to depict a gay character as anything other than a comic stereotype, as a married man struggles with his sexuality. At the end of this piece, he talks about his upcoming film, Macho Dancer, released in 1988.
A second interview plays as an alternative soundtrack under the feature, running 62:07. This was recorded at the National Film Theatre on 14 October 1982. This was part of a Filipino cinema retrospective, which included seven of Brocka's own films, including the two in this set and also Bona (1980) which also bypassed British cinemas otherwise but had a television showing on BBC2 on 9 February 1986 (I watched it). He also provided prints from his collection of two films from director Gerardo de Leon (whose films included The Moises Padilla Story, a clip from the only known print of which can be seen at the start of the Visions Cinema documentary). Tony Rayns moderates, though the majority of this recording comprises Brocka taking questions from the audience, which includes Derek Malcolm.
The BFI's booklet runs to twenty-eight pages without the covers. It begins with an essay. “Light in the Darkness: Lino Brocka and Filipino Cinema Under Martial Law” by Cathy Landicho Clark, which does a fine job of putting the two films in this set in their context. It's prefaced by a spoiler warning, so read it after watching the films. Next up is a long interview with Brocka by Michel Ciment, published in Positif in 1980. This concentrates on his then-new film Jaguar, but Brocka does point up similarities with his earlier films, Insiang especially. Ciment then goes on to ask Brocka about his earlier life and career. Also in the booklet are a reprint of Jo Imeson's review of Manila from the January 1981 Monthly Film Bulletin, full credits for both films, notes and credits for the extras, transfer notes and stills.