Off the Radar: ‘Manila in the Claws of Light’ dissects a city under the pressure of tyranny

Off the Radar is a weekly column surveying overlooked films available to students for free via NYU’s streaming partnerships. “Manila in the Claws of Light” is available to stream on Kanopy.


Aaliya Luthra

“Manila in the Claws of Light” is a classic in Filipino cinema. (Illustration by Aaliya Luthra)

Mick Gaw, Staff Writer

“Manila in the Claws of Light” takes viewers on a tragic cinematic odyssey. Director Lino Brocka’s masterpiece is a visceral indictment of the moral corruption, economic exploitation and persisting systemic inequalities under the Marcos regime. Even 47 years after the film’s release, the harsh realities presented in it have gained new significance. While many Filipino filmmakers have upheld Brocka’s artistic tradition of political resistance, few have come close to matching his articulate, yet unrestrained and brutally honest narrative voice. Brocka peels away naive perceptions of urban life to reveal the dark and crushing weight of the city.

 Julio Madiaga (Rafael ‘Bembol’ Roco Jr.), a fisherman from the countryside, arrives in the bustling metropolis of Manila in search of his lover Ligaya (Hilda Koronel). As he tirelessly scours the city streets, Julio is immersed in neon-lit chaos. Julio’s simplistic, innocent view of life is tested by the rampant inequality of the city. The everyman is shattered by a predatory capitalistic system; some are broken by the physical demands of labor, while others are forced to sell their bodies to make ends meet. Having witnessed the constant agony and injustice in Manila, Julio is put under increasing psychological and emotional strain. As the film progresses, viewers are left to wonder how much more he can absorb before he erupts. 

The city of Manila is as much a subject in this film as any of its characters. While city symphonies often serve as a love letter to their setting, Brocka’s depiction of the urban landscape is unapologetically gritty. He takes audiences through the seedy side streets of Binondo. Shanty towns, which are built with scrap wood and corrugated sheet metal, house thousands of families who are forced to live in squalor. These struggling families live only a stone’s throw away from the immense wealth and decadence of the city. Film scholar José B. Capino argues that Brocka’s depiction of the city is both a “social expose and parable.” It is a “stylized reportage” of the city under dictatorship and a “universal tale of life and death in a metropolis.”

While Brocka’s film is clearly a response to the brutality and corruption of Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship, today’s Filipino audiences will find that, despite this film taking place almost half a century post-dictatorship, the country is still plagued with the same social issues — namely ever-growing wealth disparities and the abuse of political power. In a contemporary culture dominated by escapist fiction, “Manila in the Claws of Light” pulls viewers back into a harsh and unforgiving reality. 

Contact Mick Gaw at [email protected].