Manila in the claws of light
ZOETROPE - Juaniyo Arcellana (The Philippine Star) - July 15, 2013 - 12:00am

When Bembol Roco still had hair, and Hilda Koronel was the prettiest face to launch a thousand inter-island ships in Port Area, it was called Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, the late director Lino Brocka’s cult classic first released in 1975. The film has since been digitally restored, the second in a continuing project of saving the masterpieces from the elements after Genghis Khan by Manuel Conde.

That the ’70s were a decade synonymous with Manila as capital in the eye of martial law there can be no denying, because aside from that omnipresent Hotdog song blaring out of jeepneys in not so traffic filled days, and Brocka’s aforementioned opus, there was Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night that so incensed the then powers that be that it had to be renamed City After Dark. But wait, Bernal’s film may have been already encroaching on the ’80s, perfect prologue to another city based moving picture that was Mario O’Hara’s Bulaklak ng City Jail, though that’s another story.

The restored Maynila was screened in Cannes last May, which may have been a kind of déjà vu for Koronel who made waves there moons and moons ago with Insiang, also by Brocka; she was perfect too, bright as sunlight in the south of France. Then Roco himself graced the screening first Saturday of July of the film at UP Film Center; what a trip it has been from Misericordia corner Onpin Street to the greens of Diliman.

I can’t recall exactly where I first watched this film, but it must have been in either Cubao or Quiapo, those meccas of the stand-alone cinemas, occasionally occupying a block of a street like clusters, as it was in Aurora Boulevard and Avenida. But even if I had watched it in Cubao, say the New Frontier beside the Dairy Queen and A&W Rootbeer joint and the art deco Cinema 21, upon coming out of the theater under the already night sky it must have felt like Manila, such was the impact of the movie and the final scene of Juliio Madiaga trapped like a rat in an alley, his silent scream a lament for lost love and wasted innocence, against the backdrop of Ligaya Paraiso’s profile and a setting sun.

What I remember most was the story’s patient exposition, its somewhat mild pace, and the ominous presence of the Koronel character’s evil recruiter, the almost generic Mrs. Cruz, still very much around these days in the person of human traffickers in the white slave trade. The story may seem simple enough, down to the probinsyano going to the city to retrace the whereabouts of his lady love, to the construction site scenes with Lou Salvador Jr. and Tommy Abuel as the best friend Pol, who has the unforgettable scene at a beer carinderia where he stubs out his cigarette in the palm of his hand before telling Julio of Ligaya’s death.

Speak of lasting scenes and there’s another one in the motel where Julio and Ligaya try to make up for lost time; there are few as tender in the history of any cinema. Surely it is a fleabag place, but you can almost smell the sweat and stains on the sheets as if they were a perfumed past. A poster has been made of the lovers in each other’s arms.

Or that one where Roco stares out James Dean-like at Ah Tek’s house off Misericordia, if ever there was a street that befits its name, and there you have the icon of tragedy, love at the crosshairs of an augmented reality. If romance can exist in the real world, in the dark cinema of the ’70s the circumstances may not be as kind. And the restoration itself is crystal clear, the esteros of Chinatown gurgling, the slums and alleyways teeming with a smoky life and squalor.

Two of the players in the movie, both before and behind camera, are still also very much around and active in the industry. Abuel can still be seen in the occasional teleserye as well as in theater, a reliable veteran of the craft. His old movies can also be viewed on PBO. Scriptwriter Doy del Mundo is still teaching at La Salle and making quietly independent films and documentaries, with an ear sharp as ever for dialogue, as he had in adapting Edgardo Reyes’ novel for the screen. Mike de Leon of course was cinematographer and co-producer, the semi-recluse who graced the premier along with Abuel.

Roco is now a fixture in both mainstream and indie cinema, having lately appeared with Nora Aunor in Brillante Mendoza’s Thy Womb. He has sons who have also become actors. Koronel, now US-based, lands regular roles in TV and film, among the latest of which concerns the other woman template, this time as not the other woman, but mother of one of the protagonists caught in yet another never-ending triangle. She was, however, unbeatable in that quintessential Baguio film, De Leon’s Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising.

Brocka for his part has long been dead, victim of a car crash in the early ’90s. There’s been talk that the actor Alan Paule was at the wheel, but we never know how much of that is apocrypha. Paule was the lead in one of the National Artist’s last films, Macho Dancer.

The headlines have read how Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag has returned to UP, which was where Brocka had the beginnings of his craft as artist, particularly in the campus theater group.  Which could be the best training ever, as Bernal and Tony Mabesa and even Eugene Domingo will tell you.

There was a hearty ovation at the end of screening at the nearly full Cine Adarna, and the acacias in Diliman, too, applauded lustily as a native son returned home, digitally restored, in the claws of light.

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