shot in manila

If you want to have a good picture of Manila as a
city, don’t ask Dick Gordon. Try the movie houses
instead. Indeed, if we were to survey how Manila was
depicted in the films that came out in the last few
decades, it is clear that Manila is definitely no Wow
Philippines. You wouldn’t find genteel pinoys drinking
daiquiris while admiring the colorful jeepneys that
the Hotdogs so rave about. Instead you get ravaged
provincianos running amok, stoned prostitutes
searching for a way out, and young girls getting felt
by their nefarious stepfathers.

Drama and intrigue

One will also discover that Filipino filmmakers view
the city in utter seriousness, with the notable
exemption of, perhaps, Ishmael Bernal, whose films
always bear his trademark wicked humor. For the last
few decades, Filipino filmmakers have portrayed Manila
in all its squalid beauty. Here, they seem to say, is
a no man’s land where only the fittest survive and the
weaklings are devoured mercilessly. The city has, in
fact, become a convenient milieu for the local
filmmakers to stage their social melodramas,
politically charged stories, and sometimes, their own
versions of film noirs.

Perhaps, this has something to do with the fact that
Manila is the epicenter of the Philippines and here
you can find a diverse range of characters, from the
innocent to the beastly, from the saints to the
sinners. Its streets are also a rich and endless
source of drama, whether one wants to focus on the
violent environs of Tondo or Malate’s wild, perverted
bohemian scene. Where else can you find a gutsy sex
worker (Rosanna Roces, Curacha), a gentle lagarista
(Piolo Pascual, Lagarista), a lonesome spinster
(Regine Velasquez, Ikaw Lang, Hanggang Ngayon), and a
caring gay man (Bernardo Bernardo, Manila By Night)
all in one place but in the congested streets of

Manila by night

Perhaps, Bernal best captures this diversity in Manila
By Night where he skewers the city’s entire social
landscape, from the troubled middle class family down
to the sleazy world of prostitutes and drug addicts.
In Manila, he sees the city as a wild drug trip,
replete with two-faced players, junkies, hypocrites,
and whores. As Cheri Gil’s character says as she takes
a dip in the Manila Bay, the city is like one
psychedelic road trip and one should just roll along
with it. Bernal casts a sardonic eye on a city that he
finds alternately gruesome and hilarious. Somewhere in
the movie a young woman (Lorna Tolentino) gets
impregnated and abandoned by her lover (Orestes Ojeda)
while a corpse of a slain prostitute (Alma Moreno) is
mistakenly sent to another family in the south.

The filmmaker also casts the city in a surrealistic
light, a place where a man suddenly materializes out
of nowhere in the middle of the night wearing a
heart-shaped costume. In Rizal Park, a poet recites
his works to a group of street kids (“There’s no city
like this city,” he proclaims) while New Age fanatics
gather in one corner. “What's really disturbing about
the film was an even deeper honesty--that it showed
the ugliness, but the seductive beauty of Manila; the
lurid neon glow, the dripping sheen of its
phosphorescent underbelly. This was Manila's true
danger--that it was a fascinating whore,” film critic
Noel Vera once wrote in an article in Cinemaya

In another scene, a group of transvestites stage a
disco in the middle a barangay court and dances in all
abandon to the song “Funky Town.” Because, as one
might have guessed, for Bernal Manila is a funky town
where a lot can happen in just one night. By the end
of movie, the denizens of Manila don’t find any
resolution or any concrete closure. They just wake up
to a warm, sun-drenched morning where another set of
creatures take over the city. Perhaps, that’s how
Manila is, unending and constantly changing.

No man’s paradise

If Bernal’s Manila is surrealistic and even
psychedelic, Lino Brocka’s version of the city is
ferocious and inhuman. In both Maynila sa Kuko ng
Liwanag and Insiang, the filmmaker shows how the city
can victimize and trap unsuspecting creatures. He also
paints the city as a concrete wilderness where one can
get lost and be eaten alive.

A perfect example of this is Maynila’s Julio Madiaga
(Bembol Roco) who comes to the city in search of his
lover, Ligaya Paraiso (Hilda Koronel). Julio is
everything that a city dweller is not—innocent,
trust-worthy, and naïve. When he arrives in Manila, he
is immediately sucked into a whirlwind of misfortunes.
Not only does the city folks take advantage of his
naivety the city itself crushes him so badly that by
the end of the movie he is reduced to a stark, raving

Maynila shows the claws beneath the city’s neon glow.
Julio came to Manila in search of “Paraiso” like a
provinciano searching for a better pasture. But as the
filmmaker clearly shows, there is, however, no
paradise to be found.

In Insiang, however, Brocka takes up practically the
same vision but places the viewers right inside bowels
of Manila. Now, the viewers are not following a
provinciano as he makes his way into the wilderness
but a young woman trapped inside the claustrophobic
environs of a Manila slum. The movie shows in great
detail how it is to live in a typical squatter area,
from the cramp quarters down to its shifty characters.

For Brocka, Manila in the 70s is a city in dire need
of change. There is poverty, crime and hunger. Brocka
used the city to depict social injustice and lend
voice to a people that are otherwise ignored by the
government. Incidentally, Brocka’s protégés Joel
Lamangan and Mario O’Hara have inherited his bleak
views of the city. In Lamangan’s Bulaklak ng Maynila,
the filmmaker portrays a Quiapo teeming with gang
lords and social leeches. O’Hara, on the other hand,
focuses on the slums near the CCP Complex. So
marginalized are they that the community is literally
hanging on the peripheries of Manila’s reclaimed area.

Romancing the city

There is, however, a gentler, more romantic side to
Manila, as other Filipino filmmakers have found out.
In Yam Larana’s Ikaw Lang, Hanggang Ngayon, a homely
government employee finds love in the form of a hunky
Richard Gomez right outside PhilPost’s newly renovated
park. Jay Ilagan, on the other hand, watches the famed
Manila sunset while wishing for a lover that the city
had deprived him of in Pio de Castro’s Soltero.

The new filmmakers, indeed, have slowly turned their
lenses on the nicer parts of Manila. Unlike in the
70s, Manila is now shown as a modern city with clubs,
restaurants, and increasingly mobile citizens.

Tough as nails

When we think of Paris, we think of Francois
Truffaut’s 400 Blows and Vicente Minnelli’s American
in Paris. When we think of New York we think of Woody
Allen and his Annie Hall. When we think of Hong Kong,
we think of John Woo’s bullet-riddled streets and Wong
Kar-Wai’s ChungKing Express. When we think of Manila
romances and musicales, however, are the last that
come to mind. But if there is anything that Brocka and
other filmmakers have shown it’s that Manila’s
denizens are tough as nails, and the city, despite its
horrors and ugliness, is seductive as hell.


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