What is a provincial boy to do when his sweetheart, to alleviate family poverty, has become the urban property of a Chinese pimp? Why, relocate to Manila and search her out! In the meantime, to survive, he takes a construction job, gets a bad case of heat stroke, learns about unfair labor practices, loses his job, and, armed with androgynous prettiness, descends into the half-world of gay hustling. Unlike Joe Buck, this isn’t preceded by a stab at heterosexual prostitution; rather, he lets himself be lured into the gay stuff, I guess, so he can make grimaces of distastefulness while earning his bacon and butter. Eventually he finds his sweetheart and follows her into a church; they plot running off together, to stop which, and to warn others, her owner kills her, the boy kills her owner, and a street mob kills the boy but for a freeze-frame that leaves this ending to our imagination. Message: Capitalism sucks; Ferdinand Marcos makes life hell in the Philippines.
A bravura opening promises that Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng liwanag—Manila: In the Claws of Neon—is going to be a good film. A black-and-white long-shot of a Manila street at dawn, with the only sound being of a lone man walking, admits color and increasing human activity: the workday has begun. Alas, nothing else in the film measures up.
Based on a serialized novel by Edgardo Reyes, this long, mostly uneventful saga trivializes its sordid environment and heads for a viciously violent finale. Lino Brocka, the film’s openly gay director, dawdles on homosexual atmosphere and details—distractions that soften the material in the direction of softcore pornography. The lead actress emotes rather than creates a character; the lead actor manages surliness and nothing else. We learn about the pair’s past from unconvincing fleeting inserts corresponding to the boy’s memory. The film is monstrously sentimental.
Ranked as one of the ten best Filipino films; has been listed as one of the world’s 150 best films. Prizes from the Filipino Academy: best film, director, actor (Bembol Roco), screenplay (Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr.), cinematography (Mike De Leon).
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