Third cinema, queer technique, and Manila’s multiple characters

review by Josen Masangkay Diaz

of Joel David's Manila by Night (A Queer Film Classic). Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017. 204 pages, $17.95.

Manila by Night (1980) remains a hallmark of third cinema, and Ishmael Bernal—more than two decades after his death—endures as one of the Philippines’ most esteemed filmmakers. Manila is arguably the best of Bernal’s most notable films, an impressive list that includes Nunal sa Tubig (Speck on the Water) (1976) and Himala (Miracle) (1982). Nearly forty years after its initial release, Bernal’s film remains a provocative portrait of Manila’s myriad cast of characters as well as its spirit, rhythm, and grit. In his monograph, esteemed film and cultural studies scholar Joel David treats it as such.

Manila filmmaker Ishmael Bernal, one of the Philippines’ most esteemed filmmakers

David views Manila as underappreciated and misunderstood, and his analysis here emerges as the only book devoted entirely to the film. While much scholarship has highlighted Manila’s significance as a cinematic or queer text, or as emblematic of the cultural milieu of Philippine dictatorship, David’s book discusses these ideas together to capture the “world” of the film.[1] [open endnotes in new window] The study, with its careful attention to the film’s aesthetics, style, and context as well as to Bernal’s own biography, offers a solid foundation for analyzing present-day queer, third, and Philippine cinema.

For David, Manila’s queerness emerges not only in its identifiably queer characters (Kano and Manay) but especially in its treatment of gender and sexuality as multifarious and porous. The film highlights this queerness through its innovative style and multiple-character format, a format that challenges the form of western cinema, ideas that I discuss later in the review.

Released in 1980 near the height of the Marcos dictatorship, the film drew the ire of First Lady Imelda Marcos. Banned for a time from Philippine theaters, the administration’s censorship board forced Bernal to remove all mention of Manila (hence the film’s other title, City after Dark) and cut lengthy sex scenes; it also denied the film’s entry to the Berlin International Film Festival. For David, even though international reviewers acknowledged the film’s innovation, the film often failed to receive deserving accolades from “Western festival scouts who favored standard Marxist-inflected social critiques coupled with surface gloss” (114). Even so, David makes clear that Filipino audiences responded well to Manila’s portrayals of urban life and sexuality and its stylistic elements, which drew from genres like the “bold film” which proliferated in the Philippines during the 1970s and 1980s.

David tackles the film’s broad social scope, and he addresses various misreadings that surrounded its reception. More important, the book insists upon a new reading of the film in order to point to the indispensability of queer cultural production to political criticism and resistance. As it emerged from the repressive conditions of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship (1965-1986), the film stands as a testament to the role of cultural production as a way to articulate the insidiousness of the regime’s violence and conditions of neocolonialism and globalization that continue in the Philippines and to imagine modes of circumventing—even resisting—the totality of the regime’s force.

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos oversaw a censorship board that drastically affected Manila’s circulation in the Philippines and outside of the country.

Manila’s formal elements

David’s interdisciplinary approach to analysis relies upon an impressive breadth of knowledge of film history and theory, critical studies and queer theory, and Philippine history. The book provides an intricate analysis of the film that encourages further reflection upon Bernal’s artistry and impact and the continued significance of Manila in the present.

While David’s monograph spans a variety of historical, political, and cinematic concerns, it maintains two distinct yet interlinked arguments. First, David reconsiders Manila and Bernal not through a simple divide between effective versus ineffective cultural practice but rather within a broader landscape of experimental cinema that emerged from the material circumstances of its social, historical, and political context. He explains that critics often misread Bernal’s film in relation to those of other Filipino and Third World film practitioners, a tendency that often ignores the film’s techniques and limits its reach (102). David’s study points to Manila’s “flawed” narrative and thematic innovations as intentional, part of a vision that was much more coherent than its formal elements initially suggest (115). Related to David’s argument is the fact that the book appears in the “queer film classics” series, and David considers Manila an inarguably queer film. Pushing back against the requisite to define queer in any one way, however, he contends that the utility of queer lies in its role as a conceptual category that refuses to be executed in neat packages (70). In other words, the film employs queerness not merely as a resistive ideology in the abstract: its narrative structure and technique constitute a queer critique of western cinema.  

The monograph begins with a synopsis of the film and an introduction, followed by three chapters, and it ends with a conclusion and appendix (which includes a transcript of an interview between David and Bernardo Bernardo, the actor who played Manay in the film). In the introduction, David positions himself to describe the ways that his own professional coming-of-age progressed alongside the film’s arrival, declaring, “As soon as I started the professional life that I had yet to fully chart, Manila by Night was ready to mark my steps” (17). He notes that Bernal tasked him to prepare the English subtitles for Manila’s Berlinale screening (18-9).The younger David found the film not “a pretty sight, but it was electric, erotic, vulgar, violent, dangerous, and loving,” a description that aptly captures his own analysis of the film’s contradictions and complexity (18). Here, David commits himself to a kind of reflexivity, which he later also identifies as a critical part of Bernal’s technique. I read this authorial self-positioning as an important feature of David’s project, as it points to both his personal experience with the film—which informs a portion of his reading of it—and the impact that the film had in the Philippines at the time of its circulation. That the film provided a backdrop for David’s work as a critic and scholar illuminates its longevity within and significance to Philippine cinema. This introduction sets the groundwork for David’s reading of the film beyond its apparent messages or failures. It points to the palpability of the film and its role as a cultural setting for Manila’s own progression.

David’s study is committed to interdisciplinarity, a necessary method to capture the film’s sprawl. He draws from film theory, cultural studies, and Philippine history, which together expand the horizon for situating and reading Manila. He cites U.S. film scholar David Bordwell’s “poetics of cinema,” for instance, to describe the different ways that a film might be considered. Drawing from Bordwell, David writes that a poetics of cinema accounts for an analytic method that attends to the filmic material, a historical method that situates the film within a specific period and setting, and a study of audience response, which gauges viewers’ receptiveness and reading strategies (79). Further, he refers to Bill Nichols’s text on documentary technique to draw attention to the ways that Bernal employs “documentary textuality” to uncover the “actual texture of history” (100). Bernal himself identified Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) as an inspiration for Manila (100-1), and David discusses the specificity and uniqueness of Nashville’s multiple-character format and audio-visual technique to delineate where Bernal drew from Altman and where he departed from him.

Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) served as a major influence for Bernal’s Manila.

A multiple-character film

Since many Jump Cut readers have not seen the film and much of David’s analysis depends on the characters’ complex interactions, I offer here a brief summary of Manilla by Night’s storyline. The film follows a series of diverse and interconnected characters as they navigate the temptations, difficulties, delights, and turbulences of the capital city. Taking place over the course of several nights, the film’s characters include Vergie, a middle-class housewife who struggles with her past as a sex worker. She discovers that her eldest son, Alex, is using drugs. Throughout the film, Alex struggles with his drug addiction, eventually loses his girlfriend, Vanessa, and engages in a brief affair with Bea, a blind masseuse, whose partner, Greg, travels to Saudi Arabia in search of work. Bea’s girlfriend is Kano (a contraction of “Amerikano” or American, which is a slang term that denotes a white man), a queer, mixed-race drug peddler who eventually betrays Bea by promising her sexual services to Alex and others. Kano, however, believes Bea to be their true love, often reminiscing with her about their former lives near the U.S. military base in Olongapo. We later find Adelina and Febrero in the home that they share with Adelina’s two children. Adelina arrives home every evening from her apparent nightshift as a nurse at a local hospital, and Febrero works as a taxi driver. Febrero, however, is also in a relationship with Manay, a gay escort, and Baby, a young waitress. Adelina has deluded her friends and family into thinking that she works as a nurse when she actually works as a sex worker for mostly Japanese clients. In the end, Vergie and her husband kick Alex out of the house for his drug use. Greg returns from Saudi Arabia to Bea only to attempt to deceive her into performing live sex shows for money. The police eventually apprehend Kano, and an unknown assailant murders Adelina on her way home from her job. As the film ends, Alex is left roaming the streets of Manila until he eventually lies down in a park. Throughout the film, the characters wrestle with the power of the urban landscape to alter, shape, and determine their lives.

The film closes with Alex lying in the park, which some critics have described as the film’s inconclusive ending.

As can be seen in the film’s narrative complexity, David centers his analysis of Manila on the significance of the multiple-character film, paying close attention to the genre’s various uses over time and across space. His overview of the milieu movie, group film, and smorgasbord technique, for instance, explores the multiple-character format across historical vicissitudes as well as its deployment in distinct social contexts. David rejects Robin Wood’s dismissal of the multiple-character film as merely emblematic of disaster films and high school teen movies (90-1) to align his analysis with Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner’s discussion of the group film as metonymy, which allows “the spectator to regard a film [for its] open-endedness, distantiation, generic playfulness, and demythologization within mainstream film undertakings” (92-3). David contends that Filipino moviegoers have long been receptive to multiple-character films due to the influence of the Catholic Church’s iconography. He writes that the

“element of multiplicity comes in when we consider the spectacle available in the major traditional churches: the retablos … or altar pieces, reminiscent of Mexico, where ‘the foci were the niches containing the santos’” (81).

The discussion here is brief, David acknowledging that such a reading may be “too literal,” but I find these points effective for articulating the multiple-character format as a multidirectional medium that allows the Filipino audience to engage with cinema from different points of entrance.

The film’s multiple-character stye seen through the intersecting conflicts between characters (here, Manay, Bea, and Bea’s helper).

David argues that Bernal’s multiple-character strategy goes beyond a simple refusal of the single protagonist form but also experiments with documentary aesthetics and sound in ways that seek to address social issues such as the intricacy of state violence, neocolonialism, and gender and sexuality during the martial law era. David writes that Bernal uses

“hand-held cameras, improvised scenes, noise-filled soundtracks comprising pointedly observed inner-city chatter, snatches of industrial and pop music sounds, and (a holdover from his earlier work, Nunal sa Tubig) indeterminate closures” (49).

He posits that Bernal’s filmography reveals a careful exploration of the medium as well as a willingness to challenge audience preferences and censorship limits (47). David writes that Bernal’s “crowd” narratives mimicked the “fly[-on-the-wall] aesthetic of keenly observed documentaries” to provide the specificity of Manila’s urban setting (49-50). For David, Bernal’s technique emerged alongside and in contrast to the proliferation of western cinematic technologies in neighboring Asian countries. Pointing to Bernal’s earlier film Aliw (1980) as Manila’s prequel, David argues that Bernal determined that the documentary aesthetic was the most suitable method for matching western-sourced technology with third world realities.

With Manila, Bernal developed what David identifies as a “queering of technique” that employed reflexivity and sound and music innovations. The former, drawn from anthropological attempts to address research biases, includes the placement of reminders within the film of media’s artificiality. In Manila, this emerges as a series of in-jokes within the film as well as an acknowledgement of the prominence of the film industry within the city (102-6). Bernal also crafts sound techniques that artificially constructed documentary “noise.” For David, the multiplicity of sound allows the film’s characters to speak in different ways and to a variety of concerns. The film’s sound and music, ranging from jazz to pop, provide commentary on dialogue between characters (106-115).

David’s discussion of Bernal’s sound technique is important for grounding his larger argument around Manila’s multiple-character format. According to David, some multiple-character films connect characters by happenstance, a move that relies upon interactions between a set of characters that are similar social types. It

“yields a text that introduces and possibly develops a group of people without allowing the viewer to find out how their social relationships function beyond their incidental connections with one another” (121).

In contrast, Bernal’s film allows different characters from a variety of social backgrounds to interact with each other (121). David explains that the rise of “bold” films in the Philippines helped shape Bernal’s practice. Here, he relies again upon careful attention to the history of Philippine cinema to contextualize Bernal’s filmmaking, an effective method for situating Manila within a broader landscape. Bold films relied not upon a single prominent actor but introduced a set of new actors within one film. In these films, a character’s story does not unfold apart from the rest of the stories; rather, the films maximize the characters’ interactions in shared scenes instead of favoring one character over another.

This “crowding” facilitates character development and allows each character to remain distinct from the crowd. In this way, David explains, individual resolutions build up to the “personal is political principle,” where private and professional concerns overlap. Such films often pointed to the intimacies and difficulties of sex work without relying too heavily upon the dialectic unfolding of Marxist logic. David argues that this multiple-character strategy allows society itself to function as a character (133). This is a noteworthy point, for as much as the characters occupy the film, their interactions are interspersed with careful shots of Manila’s hectic streets, its brawls between characters, and the lights and sound of its discos. David contends that the film also saturates Manay and Kano—the film’s identifiably queer characters—within the city so that they become indistinguishable from the city itself. Manay operates as the city’s conscience (149), and where Kano is the subversive signifier, Manay is the foil and herald (153).

The film’s identifiably queer characters, Kano and Manay. For David, Kano is the subversive signifier, and Manay is the foil and herald.

I read David’s analysis of the multiple-character format as an important acknowledgement of the Marcos regime’s logic of development and modernization. This logic was especially bent on order and cleanliness and, as the first lady often pronounced, on the principles of truth, beauty, and goodness. Insofar as film itself was especially important to the regime’s validation of power, Marcos-approved films often relied upon cinematic representations of Manila that affirmed these aspirations of order. David’s argument that Bernal relies upon the multiple-character format for Manila also points to Bernal’s own brand of anti-martial law resistance, an insistence to “crowd” Manila with its varied characters and lives in the face of the regime’s efforts to clean and clear it. Indeed, David contends that the film

“does more than merely fragment traditional notions of character. The resultant reliance on types facilitates the move away from concepts of property and money economy associated with modern capitalism and toward the Western reader’s postmodernist realities of corporate individualities” (156).