Joyful Mystery (Misteryo sa Tuwa, Abbo Q. Dela Cruz, 1984)

If you “found” a fancy bag full of cash and the guy who was carrying it obviously won’t be needing it anymore, what would you do, hand it in, or take it and keep quiet? Many would have little problem with option two, though as someone later points out sometimes big money can be a big problem. Rarely seen on its release during the martial law era, Abbo Q. Dela Cruz’s Joyful Mystery (Misteryo sa Tuwa) is both a tale of human greed and selfishness and of the thinly veiled feudalistic corruptions of an era. 

Clearly dated to the 19th August, 1950, the film opens with a raucous celebration for the baptism of the village chief’s youngest son Tiko (Kenneith Hutalla) which is all too soon disrupted by the harbingers of doom in the form of an aircraft trailing black smoke that duly crashes right into the forest in which we saw the villagers living and working throughout the social realist title sequence. The villagers rush to the scene, but once there they quickly start looting the wreckage largely ignoring the handful of bodies thrown out of the bisected plane despite the theoretical possibility that at least some of them may still be alive. The trouble starts when three men pick up a fancy briefcase belonging to “an American” and are spotted by a fourth man, a soldier, Castro (Lito Anzures), who claims to have found the briefcase first and laid claim to it. Soon after, the local mayor (Mario Taguiwalo) arrives with two Chinese businessmen who’ve come looking for their colleague who, they claim, was carrying a large amount of money intended to fund their business project. 

Despite the happy scene of the opening party at which it is assured there is food enough for everyone, it’s clear that the lure of the loot has exerted a corrupting force over the previously close village as each family attempts to hide whatever it was they took from the crash site for themselves so they won’t have to share. The three men, village chief Ponsoy (Tony Santos Sr.), problematic libertine Mesiong (Johnny Delgado), and earnest young man Jamin (Ronnie Lazaro), agree to share out the contents of the bag equally, all harbouring different dreams from a comfortable life in the city to owning a horse and the ability to get married, but are nervous about Castro, making a pact they won’t give up the money no matter what happens. 

That turns out to cause more of a problem once the authorities start looking for the bag. Captain Salgado (Robert Antonio), perhaps for obvious reasons the only incorruptible figure to be found, suspects that someone may have found the money already and decided to keep it, while the mayor admits he might have done the same, eventually entering into a pact with Castro to steal the bag from the villagers and split the contents between them. Living comfortably in the city, the mayor cares little for his co-conspirators, planning to blame the Huk rebels living in the forest for any negative fallout and otherwise making a patsy out of Castro to ensure he won’t have to part with too much of the money. 

At a loss for what to do, the villagers’ wives automatically suspect the mayor is involved, innately distrustful of authority figures, even doubting the captain whom they otherwise believe to be good and just. We’re repeatedly told that villagers are greedy mercenaries, they don’t agree to help the army with the bodies from the crash until offered money (nor do they seem worried about the fires) despite the fact that they will obviously encourage the encroachment of wild animals such as rats which are later seen to be enough of a problem that the mayor again offers a bounty on their heads in an effort to get the villagers involved in culling them. Yet we can also see that they’re trapped by a series of changing though outdated social codes in which the feudal relationships between peasants and landowners have crumbled but the farmers have been hung out to dry at the mercy of corrupt political figures such as the venal mayor and distrustful of the revolutionary Huk whose opposition to the feudal legacy they fail to understand. You can’t blame them for taking the money because they’re in desperate need and there are no other mechanisms by which they might improve their circumstances. It’s desperation rather than greed which begins to turn them against each other as they jealously guard the opportunity hidden in the money which points towards a better life for themselves and their families. 

Perhaps ironically, the film begins with a baptism and ends with a wedding which is to say that it travels anti-clockwise to come full circle as the villagers once again dance and celebrate, perhaps uncomfortably vindicated in their moral failing even as they “win” in overcoming the systemic corruption which otherwise oppresses them. Their victory however is only to a point, the social realism of the title sequence is repeated in the credits, the farmers returning to the forests just as they always have and perhaps always will no matter what illusionary dreams they might have had of escape fuelled only by the promise of misbegotten riches. 


Joyful Mystery streamed in its recent 4K restoration as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

Manila in the Claws of Light (Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, Lino Brocka, 1975)

manila-large-900About half way through Lino Brocka’s masterpiece of Philippine cinema Manila in the Claws of Light (Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag), the hero, Julio (Bembol Roco), sits watching the window where he thinks the woman he loves may be being held prisoner as a trio of guitar players strums out The Impossible Dream, unwittingly narrating his entire story. Julio is no Don Quixote but he has his own Dulcinea and, as the song says, without question or pause he is ready to march into hell for the heavenly cause of rescuing her from clutches of this cruel city. Not quite content to love pure and chaste from afar, Julio plays Orpheus descending into the underworld, plunged into a strange odyssey through a harsh and indifferent world driven by mutual exploitation and the expectation of violence.

Orphaned fisherman Julio has been in Manila for some months in search of his girlfriend, Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), lured away from her hometown by the false promises of the elegant Mrs. Cruz (Juling Bagabaldo) who claimed there were good factory jobs waiting for pretty girls in the city which also provide the opportunity to study. After she abruptly stopped writing home, Julio left to find her but months of searching have left him with few leads other than tracking Mrs. Cruz to a Chinese grocers where he sometimes thinks he sees a familiar silhouette in an upper window.

The first of Julio’s falls brings him into the world of the casual day labourer, reliant on the transience of ongoing construction and at the mercy of corrupt foremen. Having been mugged and deprived of all of his savings, Julio is completely broke and lucky to have found this job for which he will be paid 2.50 pesos per day, which is 0.5 pesos less than the wage he was getting on his last job. Later he finds out that his payslip says 4 pesos, but whether that extra 1.50 is imaginary or finding its way into the pockets of the foreman is anyone’s guess. In any case, the money is rarely paid in full but offered under the system of “taiwan” in which the company effectively refuses to pay the current wages but offers an advance on future ones for a small fee. Should an employee complain, he will simply be fired. Conditions are poor with no safety provisions and fatal accidents are not uncommon. When the project nears completion, workers will be unceremoniously laid off with no warning or additional pay, overtime is available but is paid at the basic rate.

Julio is a single man and is only ever thinking of his quest and so he is prepared to suffer. The labourers he meets are all good men and friendly, quick to help him find his feet in this often harsh terrain. Sleeping in the communal dorm, Julio makes friends with some of the other workers who each have their own dreams from studying at night school for a corporate job to becoming a famous singer but his closest ally becomes a kind man trying to support his paralysed father – shot in the back by police after refusing to leave the family’s ancestral farm illegally grabbed by a Spanish millionaire, and his younger sister all now living in a fetid slum.

Julio’s second fall occurs after he loses his job at the construction site and finds himself roaming around the city, ending up in a dodgy part of town apparently very popular for cruising. Picked up by a friendly local, Julio gets himself another place to stay but soon finds out the main idea is to recruit him as a rent boy for an exclusive gay club. Talked into it and persuaded by the possibility of earning ten times what he’d get in construction, Julio tries prostitution on for size but is not interested in sex with other men and finds it impossible to adapt to the kind of showmanship the role requires. His experiences do, at least, provide a kind of mirror for what he fears has befallen his lady love though the gay club is a much more open environment in which the staff is free to leave at any time, turn clients down, and generally take in the atmosphere whilst waiting around.

The city is a willing collaborator in Julio’s fate. Naivety has no place here where the only route out of oppression is to become an oppressor. Early on Julio mentions going to the police to get help for Ligaya but is cautioned against it. Impotent and hopeless, Julio’s rage only grows as he watches friends die in cruel, ridiculous and unnecessary ways to the point at which he almost kills a purse snatcher in a kind of vengeance against an unkind society. Brocka breaks the contemporary action with frequent flashbacks as Julio remembers happier times with Ligaya some lasting mere seconds and others minutes reflecting Julio’s growing madness and unresolved rage. To try to live here is to dream the impossible dream, but for Julio there can only be one way out and it lies in violence, loss and defeat. Laying bare the futility of life under a dictatorial regime with all of its fear and emptiness, Manila in The Claws of Light is quietly angry, filled with a young man’s fire as he finds the world denied him, his dreams impossible, and his hope already in ashes.


Restoration trailer (no subtitles)