In the Claws of the City: Manila in Film

Adolfo Aranjuez

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Urban realism is one of the oldest tropes in Philippine cinema. How else can the camera see the city?

On the Job
A film directed by Erik Matti, 2013

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros
A film directed by Aureaus Solito, 2005

Metro Manila
A film directed by Sean Ellis, 2013

My father grew up in Navotas, in the northwest of Metro Manila. His family wasn’t the most well-off, but he worked hard to eventually find the means to become self-sufficient. Apparently he was always driven by the desire to save money for his children so that we would never have to live through what he and his family did. And despite having established our home in Parañaque, it was in Navotas that he situated his office, which, by the time I was born, had done so well that Dad only visited it occasionally.

I was raised as “the boss’s son,” and Mom, Ate, and I would sometimes accompany Dad on his trips to the office. On the way there, we would drive past buses and jeepneys headed to Monumento and Caloocan—places I’d never been to because they weren’t “my places.” I’d see children walking barefoot on dirty cement and playing in puddles with black-brown water. The stench of rubbish and decomposing plastic from Smokey Mountain would infiltrate the tinted-glass windows of our Nissan Sentra. By the time we’d arrive at Navotas, I’d be nose-deep in a picture-less book or else sowing the seeds of repetitive strain injury, my thumbs hyperactively pressing my Gameboy’s buttons. We’d get there and I’d stay in the waiting area, sprawled on the three-seater couch, sheltered from the dirty, decrepit outside world that I couldn’t deal with because it “wasn’t my life.” By the time I moved to Melbourne at 15, I felt further divorced from this world. I’m even more estranged from it now, 10 years later.

The philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, examined how, to maintain a sense of identity, an individual must “fashion” his or her own life story. In cases like mine, nostalgia plays an even more important role,1and self-narratives become dependent not just on real-life events (or the confabulated versions of those events), but also on other, external sources.2 Memory is bricolage: a piecing-together of disparate elements—photographs, journal entries, conversations, mementoes held sentimentally in drawers, even films—that coax remembrance. And while, growing up, I never really watched Philippine movies, I understand now that film powerfully captures the popular consciousness of a community and gives viewers filmic representations of themselves.3 Films set in Manila focus a lens on a city that wasn’t mine but was around me in my youth. It was a Manila of plywood houses and makeshift, corrugated-iron roofs; of laundresses washing clothes in basins outdoors, and plastic chairs and bain-maries in karinderyas. These are all images I can identify but not identify with. Like catching up with someone you never really knew that well, I have to find middle ground on which to reconnect. Films about Manila that are considered part of the “world cinema” canon feel like the perfect place to start.

Writing about cinematic landscapes, Chris Lukinbeal distinguishes between space and place. Whereas the former refers to the setting in which the narrative unfolds and is subordinate to character and action, the latter is tied to the “real” world and our cultural conceptions of location.4  Place, thus, is reliant on iconography, and in film, Manila has been codified as being replete with slums. Even the most renowned of Philippine films about Manila, Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975) and Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980), trade on these now-stereotyped representations of the city. In Brocka and Bernal’s time, however, it made sense to capture scenes of urban decay to chronicle how Ferdinand Marcos’s vision for a glamorous Manila led to crime, disorder, and poverty.5  But these days, the “beautification” projects of the Marcoses have come and gone, and now we have other political pressures to grapple with. In line with this change, we’ve also seen a rise in what Patrick F. Campos calls “new urban realist” films, which are driven not by character nor plot but rather “impelled by the environmental and logical determinations of the setting.”6

Unlike the greats of late 20th century Philippine cinema, new urban realist filmmakers are no longer concerned with exposing political ills through harrowing scenes of tough life on the streets. Instead, they defamiliarize the abject poverty that we’ve grown accustomed to by revealing facets of it that we’ve perhaps not seen before. New urban realism focuses on the banal—thus, scenes of cooking, walking, and small talk, normally elided by snappy film editing or relegated to the brevity of montages, receive significant attention. And these, coupled with the conventional role of the establishing shot to ground each scene to a place that is familiar to the viewer,7  achieve new urban realism’s goal of foregrounding the film’s setting.8

Auraeus Solito’s Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (2005) typifies the genre. Its opening shots of the Manila cityscape feature jeepneys, sampaguita-chain necklaces, pirated DVDs, the now-functional metropolitan train system, a hearse, bodies of discolored water overrun with rubbish, and families performing errands (like bathing) on the sidewalk. One image even becomes a recurring motif in the film: a haggard old man atonally banging his fingers on a piano. We are also made privy to several conversations—drunks teasing the protagonist, Maxi (Nathan Lopez), about being coy; Maxi’s father (Soliman Cruz) pawning off a cellphone to a neighbor; Maxi’s brother, Bogs (Ping Medina), obtaining a jueteng ticket and flirting with a young woman. Solito lingers on these images, and immediately after we find ourselves in the Oliveros family’s dining room, where we watch the family discussing money, food, Maxi’s cooking, Bogs getting a hand-me-down cellphone, and prayer. Solito’s predilection for “snapshots” of Manila slum life pervade Maximo Oliveros, and we remain unsure as to what visual and aural information is, in fact, useful for the rest of the film.

We later find out that Maxi develops affections for the cop, Victor (JR Valentin), whose investigations incriminate his father and brothers. But in line with new urban realism’s raison d’être, the film’s narrative is less significant than its depiction of Manila. Shot on location in the slums of Sampaloc, the film delights in images of the city folk’s toing and froing: The piano man is later taunted by some neighborhood children; an older woman yells at another woman for disposing of rubbish in the wrong spot; Maxi and his friends put on a Miss Universe–inspired “pageant,” complete with costumes and music, in a seamstress’s workshop. Of these images, the kids’ play-pageant—which, we later find out, has no direct bearing on the plot—is particularly salient, as it conveys much about Philippine culture amid its veneer of humorous irrelevance. Maxi plays the role of the Filipino contestant; the film conveying to its viewers that he metaphorically encapsulates the country’s identity. During the pageant, the children—notably, three (seemingly) gay boys—demonstrate Filipinos’ love for performance and spectacle, especially amid trying times. The first boy acts out a clichéd scene that young Filipino children (myself included) learn, whereby, upon arriving home to discover one’s mother dead, one proceeds to weep and beg her to come back to life. The second boy, dressed in drag, lip-syncs to a song—a form of entertainment popular in the Philippines. And when Maxi’s turn to perform comes, he incorporates “action songs” into his dance number. On the surface, these scenes may merely offer hilarity or else help with Maxi’s characterization as a Filipino bakla. But to viewers who are more familiar with Philippine culture, however, the scenes also embody artifacts of visual and aural nostalgia, alluding to specific facets of Filipinos’ way of life that are reminiscent and meaningfully relatable.

Maxi’s embodiment of the Philippines as a whole is crystallized in his relationship to Victor and his father. He initially chooses Victor’s side after the cop is bashed by Bogs’s cronies, tending to his wounds and, in the morning, cooking him breakfast. In one scene, we are put in Maxi’s shoes and we “objectify” Victor as Maxi does—watching the cop put on his underwear, marveling at his shapely arms and torso. Yet the camera moves along the wooden slats that separate preteen from policeman, once again emphasizing the importance of location (domestic space, separate rooms) while simultaneously evoking the image of prison bars and, thus, the constraints impeding Maxi’s feelings for Victor. Later, Maxi’s father forbids him from spending time with Victor, highlighting Maxi’s caught-in-the-middle situation, and in the film’s climax, Maxi attempts to intervene upon learning that his father has decided to murder the cop. In the dark of night, Maxi weaves his way through Sampaloc’s alleys until he arrives in time to see his father shot dead by the chief of police, with Victor watching by.

In the film’s ending, Maxi walks through tidy-looking streets in the clear light of day; Victor attempts to reconcile with him, but Maxi, with greater clarity, walks on. If his father symbolizes the familiar, criminal past and Victor embodies the opportunity for a wholesome future, then Maxi’s choice—and, by analogy, that of the Philippines—is neither, and to find one’s own (morally ambiguous) way instead.

Whereas in the films of Brocka and Bernal, Manila is presented as a land of both promise and peril that works with and against the protagonists, in Maximo Oliveros it plays the pivotal role. Solito’s (human) characters are just one among many facets in the film’s mosaic of Manila, alongside that of the piano man, the arguing women, the makeshift houses and clogged-up sewer drains, and the overpopulation, gambling, and crime. In this way, Victor (as the archetypal cop), Maxi’s father (as criminal father), and Maxi himself (as moral victim) are almost predictable; deviating from traditional narratives, which apportion significant time to characterization, Solito depicts his characters as subservient to place.

This privileging of place plays out, too, in British director Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila (2013) and Filipino genre-master Erik Matti’s On the Job (2013)—films that, while not exhaustively, manifest characteristics of new urban realism. The films tell the story of individuals—Oscar (Jake Macapagal) and Mai (Althea Vega) in the former, Tatang (Joel Torre) and Daniel (Gerald Anderson) in the latter— who, in fending for their families, are forced into occupations that endanger their lives. After moving from Banaue, Oscar secures a job as an armored-car driver while Mai gets a job as a waitress at a topless bar. On the other hand, Tatang and Oscar, inmates at an unnamed prison, are hired as hitmen, temporarily released in the cover of darkness to carry out assassinations and returning to the jail before daybreak. The two films may not give viewers the lingering landscape shots that are the hallmarks of the genre (as Maximo Oliveros does), but they do embody the new urban realist notion that places shape people and how they live.

In the opening of Metro Manila, Oscar and Mai are shown to be leaving their Banaue home after deciding to go to Manila in search of a better future. The transition from Banaue’s wooden houses and untouched-by-civilization rice terraces, to the concrete and smog of Manila is staggering, and the family’s “descent” from the mountainous province kissed by clouds to the lowland capital (and, arguably, the belly of Philippine corruption) is reminiscent of Gaston Bachelard’s examination of verticality in literature, with depictions of descent prefiguring how characters move from morality to debasement.9 Like Solito, Ellis gives viewers codified images of Manila: billboards, tall buildings, bogeymen kidnapping a woman, the seemingly boundless slums of Tondo. All of these situate us in the Manila the audience knows, and it’s in this Manila (rather than, say, the glamorous Manila of the Makati CBD) that the story will unfold.

A similar approach is employed in On the Job. Matti’s film opens with a street parade and a montage of (staged) news footage reporting on the murder that Tatang and Daniel have just committed. The rest of the film is likewise peppered with images of Manila as a place of depravity and destitution, from the rundown houses with rusted roofs that Daniel walks past, to the deplorable condition of the jail that houses him and Tatang, even to the disarray of the police headquarters.

Interestingly, both Metro Manila and On the Job include portrayals of settings normally associated with the middle and upper-middle classes. We get a glimpse of class disparity in Maximo Oliveros, as Victor’s house is better-built and ostentatious, and is set apart from the slum dwellers’ board-and-corrugated-iron shanties. But in Metro Manila, Oscar’s colleague, Ong (John Arcilla), is explicitly shown to be living in an apartment overlooking the city (an “enviable life,” according to Oscar); its interior is a stark contrast to the drabness of Oscar and Mai’s living quarters, which Ong himself had procured for them. And in On the Job, the policeman protagonist, Francis Coronel, Jr. (Piolo Pascual), as well as his girlfriend’s politician father (Michael De Mesa) and colleagues are clearly portrayed as both well-to-do and powerful—living in mansions in gated communities, playing golf (with attire to match) and sitting around talking politics in a jacuzzi. These depictions, while rooted in some truth, fuel the stereotypical image of Manila as a place of both promise and peril while emphasizing the “boundaries that reinforce the city’s segregation.”10 In doing so, the films show us not just what we (think we) know about the city’s class divide, but also concrete (diegetic) manifestations of it.

It is this disparity between rich and poor that drives Oscar, Tatang, and Daniel to commit the criminal acts we see in their respective films. Like Maxi’s father, they feel the burden of financial lack on a daily basis, and they understand full well the power that money can bestow. But, like Solito, neither Ellis nor Matti seek to pontificate about the (im)morality of crime; instead, their films show the complicated relationship crime has with poverty and place. In her study of Brillante Mendoza’s Tirador (2007), Lorna Queong Israel examines how films frame slums as sites that lend themselves to the criminal lifestyle,11 and her assertions parallel Campos’s contention that characters in new urban realist films are “socially determined in a normatively deterministic narrative world.”12 Much like for the tiradors in Mendoza’s film, Manila acts as an enabler in Maximo Oliveros,Metro Manila, and On the Job, and the films’ protagonists knowingly capitalize on its seedy underside. It is in the dark alleys that Bogs and co. beat up Victor, and where Maxi’s father is killed. It is through the corrupt police system (the bribes granting them momentary freedom) and polluted waterways (where murder weapons are disposed of) that Daniel and Tatang are able to undertake their livelihood. It is Oscar and Mai’s neighbor from Tondo (“a place full of criminals,” according to Ong) who suggests that she get a job at the topless bar. And it is following Ong’s own embezzlement that Oscar decides to steal from the armored-car company they both work for.

The inevitable desperation of the protagonists’ situations is best exemplified when Mai, upon being asked by Oscar about her job at the bar, explains, “We have no money. We have no food. We have nothing […] Sometimes the only thing left to hold onto is the blade of a knife.” Here, we are compelled to confront the fact that, while money is crucial to their survival, there just isn’t enough money to go around in the Manila megalopolis. The idea is powerfully driven home by the closing song in On the Job, Dong Abay’s “Mateo Singko,” which plays on the Tagalog word “mahirap” and its dual meaning as both “poor” and “difficult.” Where the Philippines is concerned, it is not only difficult being poor—it’s impossible to be one without the other.

If nostalgia is a process of self-narrativization, and filmic representations form part of our collective understanding of the city and our place within it, then are these films telling us that Manila is merely a place of hardship that pushes desperate individuals to crime? Indeed, criticisms abound that films in the same vein as Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, On the Job, and Metro Manila exploit the lives of the people represented and revel in “poverty porn,” which glorifies destitution as “exoticized spectacle.”13 It’s worth remembering that cinema often creates spectacle-cities and that, as an audience, we want to feel like we’ve been “transported” to the world of the narrative. Because of the “training” we as viewers have received from Hollywood, we expect films to let us “suspend disbelief”14—in this case, the films must enthrone us outside the invisible fourth wall as we watch, god-like, while the characters struggle with their quandaries in squalid locations.

But I couldn’t just suspend disbelief. I couldn’t let the wall go up and sit back while these worlds played out in front of me. I am from Manila; I’ve seen these slums even if I never lived in them, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether these films were accurate representations of life in those densely populated places. Superficially, the accusation of poverty porn could be leveled against these films (especially Metro Manila, as it was written and directed by a Britishman). But if we approach them through the lens of new urban realism—and even as Third Cinema, which eschews Hollywood conventions, represents the messiness of “real life,”15concerns itself with creating a dialogue with the audience,16 and safeguards “popular memory” against the hegemonic history that privileges the stories of those in power17 —then it’s clear that the films give us something more. If the Manila-as-place constructed within the films give us surface-level understandings of a poor, populated, crime-infested city, then, as Israel exhorts, we must peel back the outer layers and see the meaning that lies beneath.18  By “meaning,” of course, I’m not invoking the misplaced modernist notion of a singular, objective message that is seamlessly transmitted from artist to audience. Rather, I’m referring to the dialogue sparked by these films—the memories and ideas that they re-present (as in “to make present again”) to us. After all, these films do not merely use place for the sake of narrative, but rather aim to defamiliarize it and reveal to us something we’ve yet seen.19

And so, in search of my Manila, I’m “peeling back” the Manila of these films to remember what the city really means to me. The films may tell the story of the “wretched of this earth” who remain marginalized and subjugated,20 but, to me, they also share a common figure: that of the father who strives to feed his family. Oscar is responsible for Mai and their two young children; Tatang must not only fend for his wife and his daughter attending law school, but is also a father figure to Daniel; and Maxi’s widowed father works to sustain Maxi and his brothers. These three fathers may be “victims” of circumstance, drawn to criminality because of or in response to the cutthroat desperation at Manila’s heart. But amid the films’ moral ambivalence, these characters also embody prevailing Philippine beliefs about the father’s role as breadwinner. My own experiences mirror this. As the padre de pamilya, my father vowed that his yet-to-be-born children would not have to endure living hand to mouth.

Yes, cinema gives us powerful means by which to understand, validate, and perpetuate identity as well as tools with which to continue our self-narratives. Even if just through representations, I’ve learned a lot from seeing other (or Other, in the philosophical sense) lives played out on screen. My father, too, worked hard to improve my and my sister’s standing. My dad was himself once a kid playing barefoot on the streets—not unlike those in the films and those I’d heard outside his Navotas office when I was still that Tsinoy boy who needed to sweat off some pounds. So these films, in some oblique way, remind me of where I’ve come from. And, perhaps more significantly, they tell us something about Manila beyond its moth-to-the-flame neon lights and its mountains of rubbish.

footnotes

  1. Svetlana Boym, “Nostalgia and Its Discontents,” The Hedgehog Review, vol. 9, no. 2 (Summer 2007), pp. 13, 15–16.

  2. Andrew Brown & Michael Humphries, “Nostalgia and the Narrativization of Identity,” British Journal of Management, vol. 13, no. 2 (2002), p. 142.

  3. See, for example, Dominic Strinati, An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, Routledge, London, 2004; and Richard Maltby, Harmless Entertainment: Hollywood and the Ideology of Consensus, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Metuchen, 1952.

  4. Chris Lukinbeal, “Cinematic Landscapes,” Journal of Cultural Geography, vol. 23, no. 1 (Fall/Winter 2005), p.

  5. Patrick F. Campos, “The Intersection of Philippine and Global Film Cultures in the New Urban Realist Film,” Plaridel, vol. 8, no. 1 (February 2011), p. 4.

  6. ibid., p. 9.

  7. Lukinbeal, op. cit., p. 8.

  8. Campos, op. cit., p. 9.

  9. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston, 1994 [1958].

  10. Even to the detriment of other issues, such as the subjugation of women. In the three films, there is not one significant female figure, Mai included; an exception, perhaps, is Vivian Velez’s role as the “boss” who assigns assassinations in On the Job, but even she is hardly given screen time. See Joseph T. Salazar, “Projections of An/Other Space: The Cities of Three Contemporary Southeast Asian Cinemas—The Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand,” Are We up to the Challenge?—Current Crises and the Asian Intellectual Community: The Work of the 2005/2006 API Fellows, The Nippon Foundation, 2011.

  11. Lorna Queong Israel, “Anatomy of a Decriminalising Locality: The Body of Manila’s Slum Dwellers in the Film Tirador (Slingshot),” Localities, vol. 1 (2011), p. 227.

  12. Campos, op. cit., p. 9.

  13. ibid., p. 10; see also Israel, op. cit., p. 214.

  14. Lukinbeal, op. cit., p. 17.

  15. Michael Chanan, “The Changing Geography of Third Cinema,” Screen, vol. 38, no. 4 (Winter 1997), pp. 375–376.

  16. Teshome Gabriel, “Third Cinema as Guardian of Popular Memory: Towards a Third Aesthetics,” http://teshomegabriel.net/third-cinema-as-guardian-of-popular-memory, accessed 10 May 2014.

  17. ibid.

  18. Israel, op. cit., p. 237.

  19. For example, Bernard Boo writes that On the Job “says nothing new” about crime and corruption in Manila, but that “it’s the presentation of the material that will floor you”; see Boo, “On the Job”, Way Too Indie, September 26, 2013, http://waytooindie.com/review/movie/on-the-job/, accessed May 10, 2014. Similarly, Bert B. Sulat, Jr., writes that “as with its titular city, there’s more to Metro Manila than what the eye can see”; see Sulat, Jr., “Beholding Metro Manila’s Duality,” Rappler, 10 October 2013, http://www.rappler.com/entertainment/movies/41012-sean-ellis-metro-manila-bert-sulat-movie-review, accessed 10 May 2014.

  20. Gabriel, op. cit.