A harrowing portrait of 1970s Manila, Lino Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Neon blends melodrama and the Hollywood-style detective narrative, delivering a powerful expose into the state of the Philippines capital city, one in which corruption, exploitation, and injustice run rampant. The story of a young fisherman from a provincial village who arrives in Manila in search of his girlfriend, the love-of-his-life who left the small-town for the allure and promise of the big city, Manila in the Claws of Neon weaponizes its narrative and melodramatic elements for thematic impact, traversing the city of Manila through its character-driven narrative to reveal a city in the state of brooding class upheaval, with the cities' rapid industrial progression crushing the lower-class, those who don't have the social or economical capital to fight back. Casually blending neorealism, melodrama, and genre filmmaking into a cohesive portrait of a city, Manila in the Claws of Neon simplistic narrative feels grandiose in scale, being film as much about the state of a country as it's about the personal journey of a character. Claws of Neon pains a stark portrait of Manila, one of rapid corruption and exploitation, where those with privilege are granted access, and where those who have nothing, struggle to rise above their class. Like any good work of art, Manila in the Claws of Neon is emotion-based, a rally cry, one in which its protagonists plight is synonymous with the filmmaker's overall thematic intentions, showcasing how barbarism breeds more barbarism, with the oppressed, kind-hearted lead protagonist committing a heinous, brutal act of violence. Some may find it more than justifiable, given the circumstances that I won't detail here, but that would be missing the larger point. This act of violence is soul-shattering, it's one derived from personal satisfaction (i.e. revenge), and in this act our protagonist's kind-hearted, empathetic soul feels fractured, as he has fallen to same level as the world around him. The main protagonist's plight, one in which a good-natured man is slowly beaten down by the weight of a cruel world, serves as the perfect counterbalance to the film's thematic intentions of class upheaval; showcasing how one can only be beaten down for so long by injustice that surrounds them before they lash out. Like most politically-driven art, Manila in the Claws of Neon is too simplistic at times, recognizing the inherent flaws in capitalism but also using it as a catch-all, a scapegoat for humanity's larger complex problems related to self. Art is intrinsically rooted in the qualitative, the personal experiences, and in this Manila is always focused on the qualitative, not recognizing the quantitative, aggregated progress the region as experienced as a whole over the time period. That being said, this is a piece of art, and the emotional core of the film is robust and through-provoking, as the film never feels too monolithic or absolutist in its assertions, just perhaps misguided at times, being first-and-foremost a cry for more empathy and general kindness. The best example of this is the one low-skilled worker whom gets a job at an advertisement agency; his success is chalked-off merely as "good luck" by his friends, other low-skilled workers, yet the filmmaker knows this isn't true, recognizing that this man's commitment to getting an education paid off. This doesn't cheapen the film's larger assertions about the rampant exploitation and injustice that has manifested itself under capitalism, it strengthens it, as the film is honest in a way that few political films are, recognizing that nothing is monolithic or absolutist, and that there are always exceptions, with most success being derived by a combination of both merit and circumstance; not merely one, or the other. My largest critique of the film deals with its treatment of morality. Being like most films that dance around the Marxist doctrine, I found it problematic at times due to its moral absolutism and general simplicity when it comes to individualism and class, being a film that is quite negative towards certain fringe-social groups such as homosexuals, presuming that all choices one makes are merely out of necessity and not an individual's free-will to conduct their lives in a way they deem fit. Choice isn't relevant to the filmmakers here, as the view any "morally reprehensible behavior" (whatever that means) as merely something derived by oppression, a flawed simplistic assertion to a complex issue which feels autocratic in nature. For all its minor flaws, Lino Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Neon remains a powerful and salient portrait of corruption, exploitation, and injustice, a rally cry for change in Manila that impressively blends neorealism, melodrama, and genre filmmaking into an cohesive whole.
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