Manila by Night: Unveiling Darkness and Plight

Film still from FDCP Channel

Editor’s Note: This film review is part of a review series featuring the restored classic Filipino films available for free in FDCP Channel’s Pamanang Pelikula in celebration of this year’s Philippine Film Industry Month.

THE HUES of a city come in bright colors when watched from afar. It magnetizes all the seekers of buzz and bliss, comfort, and wealth. What looms behind the neon lights and million-dollar skyscrapers is the filthy, rotten heart of an impoverished city. 

The Film Development Council of the Philippines celebrates the first Philippine Film Industry Month through a free online screening of eight restored heritage films. One of these films is Manila by Night, a classic Filipino film of the eighties when the Marcos’ regime was at its peak. 

Directed by the late Ishmael Bernal, the film challenges the norms of their time and captures the grim reality of the fabled city of Manila. It features people in pursuit of the best out of Manila, told in multi-narrative storytelling. 

Film still from FDCP Channel

The story begins in front of the white, suburban home of Virgie (Charito Solis), who is rushing her son Alex (William Martinez) to prepare for his gig performance. During the show, Kano (Cherie Gil) has a drug transaction with Alex’s friends. Meanwhile, Alex catches the eye of Manay, a couturier who has a string of lovers around his finger. 

A gunshot disrupts Alex’s performance, causing everyone to run outside the club. Kano goes to her girlfriend Bea (Rio Locsin), a blind masseuse, and Gaying (Sharon Manabat), Bea’s helper. Together, they climb up a rooftop, overlooking the night-time view of Manila. 

The audience is also introduced to Pebrero (Orestes Ojeda), a taxi driver who is courting Baby (Lorna Tolentino), a young provincial woman. Pebrero falsely promises her marriage while hiding the fact that he is already a married man. Meanwhile, Adelina (Alma Moreno), Pebrero’s wife, comes home in a nurse outfit, covering her actual work. 

Furthermore, the film successfully establishes the Filipinos’ desire for a good life abroad. The hope for leaving the country for good is shown through Bea’s portrayal of a blind character. She clings to her boyfriend, Greg Williams (Jojo Santiago), who sets off to Saudi Arabia as an overseas worker. However, all her dreams of escape are lost when Greg returns home, only to bring her more affliction. 

In contrast, Alex’s character satisfyingly represents a young adult’s search for the hype and excitement in Manila’s nighttime life. Unfortunately, this quest sends him down to the abyss of drug addiction. Adding more into the bargain, he neglects his girlfriend Vanessa (Gina Alajar) and commits to various relationships. 

The lives of these individuals come across with each other as they trudge through Manila’s prostitution, unemployment, drug abuse, and the devoid life of the poor. Manila by Night thoroughly captures the world Manila unravels to be as soon as the sun lowers. 

The story takes place on several nights to give way to the gore and obscenity of Manila’s nightlife. In turn, this emphasizes the upturn of the switch in the city when morning comes upon Roxas Boulevard. Thrashed markets, indecent housings, and wailing children of the night are replaced with jogging people and street performers. 

Film still from FDCP Channel

Moreover, the soundtrack deserves a fair share of the recognition. The usage of eighties’ synth-pop music is one of the remarkable traits of the film. Into and out of the film, the same soundtrack is heard, tying the multiperspective narration altogether. 

Additionally, the eighties were a transitional period. People have become bolder in experimenting with the traditional and the modern. It fits the film’s goal to dare the normative and serves the people by exposing the truth about the glorified Pearl of the Orient. It taints the regime’s ‘wonderland’ image of the romanticized city of Manila. 

All in all, Bernal’s masterpiece transcends the message of Manila’s inexorable state of life to those who dream of riding its waves. The paradox of the city comes in the notion that it continues to give people hope for life while also breaking their hearts the longer they stay under its wing. F

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