Urban diaspora is a symptom of uneven development, especially in a country as archipelagic and disjointed as the Philippines. Fringe margins inaccessible to basic commodities often get lured to the big cities, hoping to fare well against thousands in a heavily congested space. Since releasing in 1975, Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag set the standard narrative of the disempowered ‘probinsyano’ going to Manila looking for opportunities of upward mobility. The story Julio Madiaga and Ligaya Paraiso experienced has been repeated before and since, along with the gender roles each character plays in the plot.
The formula: a female is baited by a recruiter to go to the city under the guise of offering her a stable job, but this turns out to be a lure to force her into prostitution. Now the male has to go to the city himself in order to search and hopefully retrieve the female out of the city, while experiencing exploitation himself in the process.
Now, not every element has to adhere to this formula. The details can always be changed. Elements can be rearranged or dropped altogether. The promise of a sustaining job can be changed to a marriage with affluent foreigners, or the framing of the story be switched to those left behind, like Chito Roño’s Signal Rock (2018). Individuals can be changed to a whole family as they go to the city under their own will (but not entirely, as they do so out of desperation), like in Sean Ellis’ Metro Manila (2013).
Like in most film genres, syntax of the narrative structure may differ. But what’s important that binds all narratives together is that the structure largely exudes the same paradigm. In our case case: conquest of the ‘othered’ city and the saving of the sexualized body.
No recent film has focused on urban diaspora and vaginal economies (a term coined by Rolando Tolentino, referring to industries that rely on feminized labor) like Brocka’s Maynila did as much as Carlo Obispo’s Gasping for Air (alternately known as 1-2-3) as the latter mirror the former. Like Ligaya, Lulu is tricked to go to the city and ends up being in vaginal economies – Ligaya as a slave wife to the Chinese Ah-Tek; Lulu as a child escort to Americans. Like Julio, Luis has to find and retrieve Lulu but ends up being feminized into sexual labor themselves.
However, both films only prioritize the perspectives of the retrieving male, brandishing a savior complex intrinsic to the structural paradigm in question. Maynila’s Ligaya is almost absent in the film, only appearing as a husk in the end. Same with Lulu, her reluctance towards her brother in the middle of the film signals a change of character unseen and unearned by the plot. It’s as if the two women are caricatured to be objects to be captured as goals in the film.
The said paradigm is not inherent to local city films. As early as 1954, John Ford established the frontier as a land to be conquered and the victimized Debbie to be saved from the ‘othered’ invaders’ hometurf in his Western The Searchers. After Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, retrieval of the incapacitated, therefore feminized, figures of Nick in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) and Col. Kurtz in Francis Ford Copolla’s Apocalypse Now (1979) in ‘othered’ Vietnam are explored. And you can guess correctly that said characters transform into different people altogether off-screen. Because it is a structural paradigm, it transcends locations and genres, sometimes even being the backbone of some of the latter. It reeks of colonial mentality, painting conquest as a benevolent venture.
It just happens that the converse is true to what Brocka left as a legacy here. Going back to the two films, class should be considered as a major factor for evaluation. Yes, care has to be considered in portraying the province as nostalgic and idyllic and Manila as a dystopian necropolis because the cause for diaspora is the insufficiency of the former in the first place. However, we should also consider that the typical protagonists in this syntax are not proud cowboys or war veterans, but disenfranchised individuals desperate for work. In hopes of conquering the city, the beaten protagonists in Manila city films keep getting beat up even more. To some degree, demonization of the city is credible because of the protagonists’ real and palpable disadvantages.
It also helps to acknowledge the historical context of Brocka’s depiction for his necrophilic Manila – to combat the superficial beautification of Metro Manila by the Marcoses. It is a context that has been lost in later films that try to emulate Brocka – resulting in a caricatured city.
To be fair, Gasping for Air did make up a lot on its own. It may show that we are slowly vying away from Brocka’s Maynila – not because Brocka’s Maynila is entirely faulty in itself, but because Gasping for Air gave us more nuance. The character of Reyna (portrayed with playfulness and seriousness thanks to the note-worthy performance of Therese Malvar) and the regaining of the narrative framing back to Lulu in the last act merits needed female agency in the narrative. The refusal of the film to depict life inside sex work as this one-dimensional hell full of misery and sex recruiters as stereotypical demonic exploiters adds said nuance to the experience of sex workers (although this agenda comes with its separate set of problematizations). The final act gives layers to the complicated situation of sex workers, that is individual free will versus systemic oppression – that some choose to be there, but choose so out of lack of other opportunities.
The mixed experiences of the characters to sex work therefore extends to the experiences with the city. Like the film, we should veer away from black-and-white narratives of province equals good, city equals bad. It only deals with symptoms – and not systemic roots to the problem. The fatal flaw Gasping for Air committed that is still linked to Brocka’s Maynila is to kill Luis like Julio was killed. And Lulu may be retrieved (to reaffirm the idealization of the province), but others still (including the more compelling Reyna) are left behind. It’s still ultimately confined within the legacy of Brocka as this permeates defeatism in and fetishization of the city – making the city as the backdrop for most poverty porn films.