Widely (and understandably) considered one of the pinnacles of Filipino cinema, Lino Brocka’s devastating, recently restored 1975 melodrama opens with several stunning, grainy black-and-white shots of Manila, striking a beautiful balance between on-the-ground verisimilitude and fable-like eeriness. As the images morph into color (very urban Wizard of Oz), we meet 21-year-old Julio (Bembol Roco), a fisherman who has traveled from his coastal idyll in pursuit of Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), the woman he loves. She was taken from her home with promises of a better life, but Julio has learned that she was actually sold into the employ of a Chinese pimp.
Julio’s search for Ligaya makes up the story’s overall arc, but for much of the movie, Brocka is more interested in putting his protagonist through the anything-to-survive wringer. He procures jobs as an underpaid construction worker and as a reluctant gay prostitute. People he befriends either vanish when the going gets tough or die under dreadful circumstances. And always there’s the oppressiveness of the big city, with its overpopulated streets, lurid neon signs and a stench that seems to waft off the screen.
It’s almost too much, this parade of indignities. Some skeptics, like Philippines-based critic Noel Vera, have pointed out that Brocka considerably softened Julio from his portrayal in Edgardo Reyes’s 1967 serial novel, which inspired the movie. Indeed, the character often comes off as a tragic innocent, more symbol-of-a-debased-nation than flesh-and-blood person. None of that, however, mitigates the power of the final third, in which Julio’s quest comes to a head and the metropolis where he has tried desperately to survive bares its unforgiving talons.
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