By Lawrence Garcia
On September 23, 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos plunged the Philippines into a period of martial law that would last nearly a decade. Characterized by economic stagnation and rampant human rights abuses, the years that followed—during which Marcos consolidated his brutal kleptocracy—saw massive infrastructure developments in the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Complex, a vast area of prime, reclaimed land along the edge of Manila Bay. The ongoing construction on this site (including the famously disastrous Manila Film Center) was but one facet of First Lady Imelda Marcos’ extravagant “beautification projects,” which were ostensibly intended to attract foreign investment, improve tourism, and signal the nation’s supposed economic health. In practice, this meant the eradication of Manila’s overcrowded slums via mass evictions and “temporary” relocations (a practice that would continue even under the democracies that followed)—a literal marginalization of Manila’s urban poor, a push to modernize the city that excluded the very population that sustained it.
This period also saw the emergence of a Second Golden Age in Philippine cinema. (The first is considered to be the years from the end of WWII to the late ’50s.) Following an extended period of industry decline, the proliferation of bombas (softcore porn films) and cheap genre knockoffs during the ’60s gave way to films from a group of vigorous and ambitious directors that included Ishmael Bernal, Celso Ad. Castillo, Mario O’Hara, Mike de Leon, and Lino Brocka. As one of the Marcos dictatorship’s staunchest and most vocal critics, Brocka was fuelled by the political climate at the time; working at a veritably Fassbinderian pace, he directed over 60 films in the period from 1970 to his sudden death in a car crash in 1991, on the very streets that were etched into the DNA of his cinema.
The sheer breadth of Brocka’s filmography alone makes it difficult to take stock of his career, to say nothing of the fact that the majority of his work is inaccessible and in dire need of restoration. But the years from 1974 to 1976, a period that produced Weighed But Found Wanting (1974), Manila in the Claws of Light (1975), and Insiang (1976)—the latter two restored by the World Cinema Project and released by BFI on home video earlier this year—provide at the very least a snapshot of this key early period in Brocka’s furiously paced career.
Not coincidentally, 1974 was the year Brocka founded the independent film production company Cinemanila. Although it proved to be a short-lived venture, collapsing after just three years, the company managed to produce Brocka’s first significant film Weighed But Found Wanting, which he considered his “first novel” and which Pierre Rissient (a fervent champion of Brocka’s) referred to as the Philippine Birth of a Nation in the way that it reignited the notion of a national cinema. Building on the Biblical resonance of its title (which would certainly have been familiar to the country’s predominantly Catholic population), Weighed chronicles the awakening conscience of a privileged teenager, Junior (Christopher de León), to hypocrisy and social injustice. Brimming with the empathy that is emblematic of Brocka’s cinema, the film unambiguously aligns itself with the social outcasts of the town—chiefly, the madwoman Kuala (Lolita Rodriguez) and the leper Berto (Mario O’Hara, who wrote the script), but also minor figures such as the bastard daughter of the local mayor and a queer schoolteacher. The film’s score, alternately melodic and percussive, soothing and discordant, embodies the oscillating tension between mainstream society (here, chiefly defined by religion) and those excluded from it.
As the film builds to its bitter, sobering conclusion, Brocka’s fulsome direction accommodates an astounding multiplicity of effects, becoming a veritable catalogue of the director’s protean talents: the psychological terror of a forced abortion; the bawdy degradation of a wake and the bitter farce of a burial; and the thrilling, climactic reckoning, in which the entire town converges on an act of desperation. And even if Weighed doesn’t ultimately earn the unwavering judgment that its title portends, it clearly augurs the path Brocka was soon to take—not to mention the fact that its critical and commercial success gave the director continued industry clout in the years to come.
Although Weighed represented a significant leap forward in Brocka’s career, it wasn’t until 1978 that the director first gained international attention, when Insiang (first released in the Philippines in 1976) became the first Filipino film to screen in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight. (Two of Brocka’s later films, Jaguar  and Bayan Ko or My Country , would go on to compete for the Palme d’Or.) Set in the slums of Tondo—the largest of Manila’s 16 districts, situated along the north side of the Pasig River—Insiang is characteristic of the location work so integral to Brocka’s films. Since the time of the Spanish, Tondo has existed as both the physical and psychic locus of the city’s marginalized; although suspended on the margins of “society,” it’s also a space that, because of sheer disparities in wealth and population, exists as a veritable society of its own.
Working again from a script by Mario O’Hara, in Insiang Brocka grafts the stuff of Greek tragedy onto a sordid rape-revenge story, in which the title character (Hilda Koronel) is assaulted by her mother Tonya’s (Mona Lisa) much-younger lover, then proceeds to exact vicious retribution. Shot on location in under two weeks and released in theatres just 17 days later, Insiang bears out the rough-hewn immediacy of its production, with Brocka’s taste for stylistic excess heightening the sensory assault of his locations: a pig slaughterhouse awash in gushing rivulets of blood and seething vats of scalding liquid; the suffocating constriction of a thronging marketplace; and the practically Stygian image of the Pasig River, framed in streams of smoke issuing from the slopes of Smokey Mountain (an infamous landfill once home to thousands who made their living as scavengers, and which operated for decades until its closure in 1995).
Beyond ethnographic verisimilitude (in itself a dubious marker of quality, especially for underrepresented national cinemas), the (Pyhrric) triumph of Insiang is how it illustrates the district itself bearing down on its inhabitants, the sinuous alleyways and cluttered canals mapping the physical and psychic burden of a downtrodden, poverty-ridden population. Smooth dollies track the circadian cycles of slum activity, its pullulating, degrading toll; zoom lenses are employed for pointed isolation and dramatic reconfiguration, entire locations collapsed onto sharpened psychological points. The violence of that slaughterhouse opening (a violence which is, crucially, conflated with labour) permeates the fetid air, threatening to materialize at any moment. So when Insiang and Tonya’s ramshackle squatter home ultimately transforms into a bloody stage, the lingering impression is not one of chaos, but of chilling inevitability. Pressured by censors to mitigate his film’s unremittingly cynical portrait of slum life (which had occasioned the personal condemnation of Imelda Marcos), Brocka capitulated by shooting the film’s current ending, a meeting between Insiang and her mother in prison. Yet while this final encounter does introduce a rather discordant note, Brocka’s intentions remain clear. Reconciliation is impossible; Insiang’s brutal finality brooks no equivocation. (Perhaps fittingly, that finality extended to Brocka’s own production company, which went bankrupt after Insiang’s ultimate box-office failure.)
If the middle film of Brocka’s great trio, Manila in the Claws of Light, stands as the director’s finest achievement (it is the film that Lav Diaz credits for jump-starting his own interest in cinema as an art form), this is in part because it so vividly and fully captures the emotional, physical (and thus political) tenor of the city. Opening black-and-white shots observe the streets of Manila, their anonymous bustle and somnolent activity; the camera sweeps across a thronging corridor, eventually locating a solitary young man, Julio (Bembol Roco, credited here as Rafael Roco, Jr.), on the corner of Ongpin and Misericordia, in the heart of Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown, at which point—subtly, thrillingly—the image blossoms into colour. More than once will the film return to this location even as it expands and digresses, its tendrils flowing out from that geographic centre to trace Julio’s beleaguered search for his lover Ligaya (Insiang’s Hilda Koronel), who has been taken to the city on the pretext of factory work and then forced into prostitution.
Alternating between the stark urban chiaroscuro of the present-day scenes and the burning radiance of the staccato flashbacks—a strategy that achieves overwhelming force in the film’s final image—Manila clearly establishes its melodramatic provenance: a tale of lost love, of pastoral innocence sullied by the grit and grime of the city. Again, however, Brocka manages to fuse his popular form with righteous leftist outrage, this time at the commodification of human bodies and the capitalist structures that enable it—an anger that is keenly felt in Brocka’s depictions of the many, Sisyphean construction sites (testament to the city’s rapid, ongoing urbanization), and the sordid neon glow of the gay red-light district. (Brocka, who identified as homosexual, would further explore Manila’s gay subculture in Macho Dancer .)
Structurally, Manila is episodic and digressive (a lingering mark of the serialized source material by Edgardo Reyes), which speaks, intentionally or not, to the truncated existences of the city’s teeming mass of humanity. As the story expands, in ever-widening circles of the impyerno that is Manila (a metaphor made literal by the hellish wreckage of a slum fire), the locations and their accompanying stories become fused into a greater mythic fabric. Reality gives way to performance: a construction-site death is elevated to theatre by its proscenium-arched staging; a dimly lit street and its neon lights is transformed by Siren-call pageantry; a gay brothel that is grandly dubbed “Scheherazade: The House of Pleasures.” Whatever Brocka may owe to neorealism—and it isn’t much to begin with—is here decisively abandoned.
Of course, Manila’s great subject, and a chief concern of Brocka’s, is capital (and by extension, labour), for which the grid-like geometry of the nighttime Arranque Market, with its uniform white bulbs and deep shades of vibrant colour, serves as both backdrop and template. Capital is traded and negotiated; goods and bodies are bought and sold. Value, never intrinsic, is the sole object; even an ice pick (the film’s version of Chekhov’s gun) is haggled over, absurdly and grimly. “You win,” says the vendor, his words belying the fact that in Brocka’s urban dystopia, no one really does. Nevertheless, Brocka understands that the pull of the city for a great many is the mere, elusive chance for something better. Even more so than in Insiang, the city here exerts an irrepressible attraction (underlined by Brocka’s choice to explicitly add “Manila” to the original title, In the Claws of Brightness), its grime and filth only amplifying its neon glow.
Similarly, Ligaya—whose full name, Ligaya Paraiso, translates to “joyful paradise”—becomes the physical embodiment of the idealized perfection of the motherland. When Julio is briefly reunited with her in the film’s final stretch, the all-too-human scale of their encounter—which moves from the quietude of a church, to the darkness of a grimy theatre, to the drab anonymity of a motel room—trembles with distressing intimacy. Although Manila’s trajectory belongs to Julio, Ligaya takes centre stage in a tour de force of shattering emotional expansion, during which she recounts the experience elided by Julio’s limited perspective. The lighted windows and amorphous silhouettes, the caged buildings and decrepit hallways—all are flipped inside-out in this single monologue, the negative space of the previous 100 minutes suddenly flooded with anguished tides of grief.
As in Insiang, the uncommon force of Manila—which, in bald description, resembles nothing so much as a miserabilist stacked deck—resides in its overwhelming progression towards an endpoint where violence isn’t just inevitable, but rational. In the only overtly political scene, Julio, having just learned of Ligaya’s “accidental” death, walks into a demonstration (presumably part of the First Quarter Storm, a series of leftist protests in 1970 that contributed to the eventual declaration of martial law), but, crucially, moves perpendicular to the direction of the crowd; such action is no longer an option.
Brocka, however, would continue in his unflagging efforts—both political and artistic—in the years that followed the lifting of martial law. In 1983, he established Concerned Artists for the Philippines (CAP), an organization positioned against the continued (artistic) restrictions of the Marcos regime. Two years later, he was imprisoned, briefly, for his involvement in a transport strike in Cubao, a district of Quezon City. Even after the EDSA Revolution (named for the massive, circumferential north-south avenue that was the movement’s epicentre) toppled Marcos in 1986, Brocka remained critical of the Aquino administration that took its place.
Given the current turmoil in the Philippines, with the Duterte administration’s brutal drug war concentrated in the north and ongoing militant unrest in the south, it’s tempting to consider the kind of figure Brocka would have cut today. Indeed, it’s even fair to wonder whether a figure like Brocka could even exist today, in an artistic climate increasingly polarized between commercial populism (e.g., the comedies of Vice Ganda) and socially conscious cinema (with directors such as Lav Diaz or Raya Martin).
Too intense an emphasis on immediate relevance, however, may obscure the enduring impact of Brocka’s artistic vision. A city filmmaker above all, Brocka captured Manila in its vivid, variegated immensity. Taken together, Brocka’s films could be said to trace the progression of modernity itself: its lingering shadow in Weighed, its deadening toll in Manila, and its brutal endpoint in Insiang. In just three years, Brocka achieved a summative height—a phenomenological portrait of urbanity, inscribed in the essences of light and space, amidst the changing tides of time and the city. In Manila’s finale—a riveting, fatalistic coup de cinéma—the spectre of violence bursts forth, irrevocably, in a ferocious act of desperation and revenge. Brocka’s camera careens through a darkened street, and the city itself seems to come alive in response (a conscious refinement of the climax of Weighed But Found Wanting), converging onto a back alley from which there is no escape. A scream of horror—echoing backwards to Antonioni’s Il Grido (1957)—dissolves into radiant, sun-drenched repose; the screen burns up in a flash of white.