fri 25/09/2020

DVD/Blu-ray: Lino Brocka - Two Films | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: Lino Brocka - Two Films

DVD/Blu-ray: Lino Brocka - Two Films

Homage to the Filipino master of social film-making

Heavy burden: Hilda Koronel in 'Isiang'

With some re-releases, the fascination is not only discovering the work of a director, but also the environment and context in which he or she worked.

With some re-releases, the fascination is not only discovering the work of a director, but also the environment and context in which he or she worked. This immaculate BFI restoration of two films by the Filipino master Lino Brocka (1939-1991) is a case in point: Isiang and Manila in the Claws of Light are from the mid-Seventies, when his native land was under Ferdinand Marcos-imposed martial law. The key player in both is the city of Manila itself, in particular its slums where life is hard, and human life cheap.

With Isiang, Brocka may have been the first director from the Philippines to reach Cannes, in 1976, but such international acclaim was surely largely incidental to him. There was a prolific commercial local film industry, in which Brocka might make, at the height of his career, some five or six films a year. He worked like that, he once said, in order “to make some movies I wanted to make”, the ones from which viewers might pick up more than they expected, something that spoke more acutely about the society in which they lived.

The lovers are duly reunited, the outcome unsurprisingly tragic

“Works that make people angry”, was how he described such films. Politics was never far away, and censorship a real issue, both at script, edit and release stages. Internationally, the stories he was telling viscerally contradicted the narrative of the Philippines projected by Imelda Marcos, who had her particular “beautiful view" of life in the country; getting prints out to international festivals often involved considerable degrees of subterfuge.

Manila in the Claws of Light tells a familiar story about the contrasting lives of the provinces and capital city: its hero Julio, a fisherman from the country, comes to Manila to look for the girlfriend who had gone there for promised work and disappeared. Exhausted and destitute, he finds work on a construction site, accepted into the community of workers earning a paltry daily wage. The lovers are duly reunited, the outcome unsurprisingly tragic. It treads a fascinating line between its subject, with elements we could easily associate with social realism, and its cinematic language, especially music, which might best be termed “sentimental realism”.  

Set in around the visually unforgettable environment of Manila’s Tondo slums, Isiang has all those social elements, but also a psychological intensity that surprises. The eponymous heroine (Hilda Koronel) is controlled by her vindictive mother, but finally gets her own back on life, in a denouement involving rape and murder. If Manila… has been described as Dickensian in its scope, Isiang could be termed Shakespearean – but really this is the territory of Zola, with a closing revenge riff that the French novelist could not have bettered.  

The two films come in 4K restorations, with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project playing a crucial role in that process. The outstanding extra is Christian Blackwood’s Signed: Lino Brocka, an 84-minute in-depth documentary from 1987 that gets to the heart of the director’s life, work and character. Brocka tells his own tales winningly, recounting stories that include the terrible 1981 accident that left workers on Manila’s Film Center (another Marcos glamour project) entombed in its foundation – a key episode in Manila… depicts a similar construction accident – through his public involvement in the political arena, as well as his homosexuality (also revealingly alluded to in a plot strand in Manila…).

The 40-minute Visions Cinema: Film in the Philippines, from 1983, is a fascinating survey of the country’s screen history, from the days when Channel 4 still made this kind of programme. Revelations abound: from older generation director Manuel Conde, we hear how his Genghis Khan reached the Venice festival in 1952, under the aegis of James Agee, while others, Brocka included, recall the film industry's growing engagement with social issues over the years. It’s presented by Tony Rayns, whose 1982 BFI Guardian interview with Brocka is included as an audio extra.

The stories he was telling viscerally contradicted the narrative of the Philippines projected by Imelda Marcos

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