After decades of slow deterioration due to time and the malady of forgetting, the 1975 masterpiece “Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag” of the late National Artist for film Lino Brocka has been digitally restored, thanks to the efforts of the Film Development Council of the Philippines, renowned American director Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, and “Maynila” cinematographer Mike de Leon, and was screened at the prestigious Cannes film festival last May.
And in a truly significant homecoming, “Maynila” was shown yesterday in Cine Adarna at the University of the Philippines, Brocka’s alma mater. The restored film’s local debut provided a great opportunity for the UP community and its guests to see it again, to situate it within the context of its time (martial law), and to reimagine how life was back then, almost a lifetime (three-and-a-half decades) ago. The general public will get to view the film during its planned run in regular cinemas in August. “It would be wonderful for his (Brocka’s) colleagues and all Filipinos to see his work again,” actress Hilda Koronel, who played the female protagonist Ligaya in the film, said last week.
It is not coincidental that “Maynila” was first seen during the beginning of the so-called second golden age of Philippine cinema, which stretched from the 1970s to the early ’80s. This was the Marcos-era Bagong Lipunan, where everyday life was defined by the whims and wishes of government overlords who controlled whatever information the public received. Cinema became a form of protest against strongman rule. In his essay “Marcos, Brocka, Bernal, City Films, and the Contestation for Imagery of Nation,” Rolando B. Tolentino noted that “Brocka’s social melodramas evoked the limitations on individual growth and productive transformation,” and that Brocka and the late Ishmael Bernal, among other directors, “served to critically engage with the Marcoses and their rule… [and] utilized the topic and theme of poverty under the dictatorship that had sought to render these scenes as invisible to an international audience.”
“Brocka and Bernal early on called into question the capacity of the Marcoses and their state to represent the nation,” Tolentino wrote. Thus, their films showed something fundamentally different from what the Marcos machine was peddling.
This second golden age was distinguished by compelling discourse and dissent. The directors battled censorship and harassment, but the products of their efforts were mesmerizing: In “Maynila,” Julio Madiaga (Bembol Roco in the role of a lifetime), a construction worker, is trying to survive in the big city but is really searching for his lost love, Ligaya, who is similarly toiling as a prostitute. Their love does not survive the brutality of the city and the film is an angry, anguished cry for help and a call to arms. Like Bernal’s 1980 classic “Manila By Night” and De Leon’s “Sister Stella L,” there is an informative desperation to this film that largely disappeared after the 1986 Edsa revolt swept the Marcoses out of power.
A different energy and urgency move Philippine cinema today, a state highlighted by the decline of the commercial studio system and the rise of the independent filmmaker. The protest films of the second golden age are a cinematic link to a dark era lit by the brightness of purpose and talent. It is important that today’s children and creators remain aware of that, and those who demand state-of-the-art special effects will do well to remember that a film is and should be judged according to its time—and thereby learn meaningful lessons.
It’s time for other classics of the period to be shown to the public—the films made under the gun, so to speak—so that the otherwise clueless young can get a glimpse of living history. If martial law and its horrors cannot yet make it to the history books read in school, maybe films like these (including Brocka’s “Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim,” which caused his eventual arrest by the Marcos regime) will do it, for true film history.
Koronel issued a reminder of why “Maynila” is a must-see for modern Filipinos: “This film tells our story… We should never forget that our films are first-class.” And we should never forget martial law’s dark blot on our past.
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