Manila by Night (1980): Exterior and Interior Aesthetics

...a remarkable masterpiece...

Manila by day

In the video format of Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (or City After Dark) the colors are smudged, greenish and choleric. It evidently instills the need for curative film restoration of not just Ishmael’s oeuvre but the whole of Philippine Cinema from the past. Some efforts have surmounted mainly from the latest generation of local film critics headed by Alexis Tioseco and local cinephiles, but this thrust towards the revival of films from old post-war classics to ‘90s cinema has been put on hold last year when its flag bearer, Alexis, passed away. His last note on his blog entitled “Dear Film Development Council of the Philippines” still lingers.

The dreadful appearance of the CineFilipino DVD copy of the movie may hinder any film critic in analyzing the details of the film especially the elements present in it, but one must still persist from all this blunders to, above all, understand the process of Bernal’s storytelling and to reconstruct the aesthetic system he used in making his masterpiece, Manila by Night. One can say that Bernal has achieved a quintessential mark in the history of Philippine Cinema with this film, but what composes that claim?

During the release of Manila by Night in 1980, American cinema made its ten-year mark for its renaissance during the 1970s with the Scorsese pictures, Mean Streets (1971), Taxi Driver (1976), and Coppolla’s masterworks The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather II (1974). Tangent to this New American Wave, as many have labeled it, our local cinema has given birth to magnum opus films of Brocka, Bernal and Mike de Leon. This prompted many academics to categorize it as the Golden Age of Philippine Cinema which will wane until the early ‘80s. Manila by Night is chronologically located at the most active times of this period released together with films such as de Leon’s Kisapmata (1981)and Batch ’81 (1982), Peque Gallaga’s Oro Plata Mata (1982), a year or two years later. Four years earlier, Lino Brocka released his most popular and regarded as Philippine Cinema’s best film of all-time, Manila sa Kuko ng Liwanag (1976). In a span of six years, from 1976 to 1982, Philippine Cinema can be considered as one of the best in the world. With high audience following, cinema viewing in Manila in those days was at its height. One can say that people spend less time in their homes and more time in cinemas for they were equivalent to malls today. The landscape to which these films were released was almost as profitable as Hollywood cinema today.

During those times, the modes of filmmaking that permeates were categorically varied. The fluidity of influences, materials and dispositions were apparent to film form this due to their exterior and interior structures. Particularly, in Manila by Night, a series of crude homage and referencing can be observed through the course of its narrative.

Exteriors: Temporal naturalism and Entrapments

From expressionism to naturalism: The ray of sunlight, which is a naturalist element common on films, hit on Alex’s forehead and arms annotates a “ray of hope” for all characters. This ends the film.

Manila by Night is externally structured by diegetic time: day and night. It starts at night and end at day and continuously repeating as if the day and night elements are mutually constructed to fill in the absence of one with the fullness of the other. The prosaic worlds where the characters exist have surprising commonalities and differences particularly in the placement of mise-en-scene elements on the two temporal areas. The rigidity of the day and night is defined by the rules of editing, such that most of the transitions from daytime and nighttime are divided by a sharp cut. The only exception to this stylistic strategy is Bernal’s execution to the last transition scene when he shows the actual naturalistic transition from night to day: the sun rising. This deviates from the dominant aesthetic system of the film since the whole design of the movie are motivated by expressionistic elements in full swing from subtle outburst to excessive symbolic overtones which will be discussed in detail below. The second to the last shot of the movie dissociates from this series of expressionism where Alex, the confused rebel of the film, lay on the grass. The usage of natural sunlight hitting on Alex’s face denotes the transition from night time to day time. This is viewing from the perceptual angle. In terms of its meaning-making qualities, the shot is connotative. Since the final shot of film constitute the sun rising, it closes the story of Alex. It might mean that since the sunlight shines all around Manila, that not only Alex’s psychological turmoil closes but also hints that all characters must have been.

Psychological entrapments via mise-en-scene entrapments: Characters hindered by psychological barriers are entrapped in windowpanes.

Another external aspect of Manila by Night is its usage of mise-en-scene to depict the character’s subjectivity. The device is not at all new, but Bernal used it in extreme subtlety. In the first figure above, the character of Lorna Tolentino is framed from the exterior of the restaurant where she works as a waitress. The frame looks as if she was trapped physically by the window pane. Upon listening to their conversations, we eventually knew that she is undergoing her own psychological entrapment for she was anxious of her future decisions on love. She was heartbroken and dismissed by his taxi driver boyfriend, unable to move on, hence ensnared by such circumstances. Bernal constructs this idea progressively. In the series of shots succeeding the first one shown on the first figure, Bernal overtly situates the psychological turmoil of Lorna’s character by projecting it to the unknown woman thrown out from the restaurant by his male lover. Bernal contained its thematic value while using film aesthetics extensively.

Interiors: Expressionistic Red

Expressionistic Red: Bernal’s own schema of using red to indicates the psychological of both internal and external space.

Most films of Bernal are constructed based on the psychology of his characters, or somehow his character’s motivations are psychological in nature. The title of film itself, or even its alternative title, City after Dark, directly depicts the setting and mood of film and its treatment to the psychology of its characters. Local viewers might respond to the title differently as many might not thought. Before it was shown in cinemas, the board of censors responded deliberately to the original title of the film and orders Bernal to rename it to City After Dark for two reasons: it uses the word “Manila”, and its depiction of Manila, though at times realistic, is negatively imbibed with characters playing either a prostitute or an illegal drug dealer. It is also due to the sexual content of the film which made it controversial upon its release.

This controversial element demands a deeper analysis of its interior aesthetics by trying to answer the question: what particular effects in the film which made it receptive to such overt reactions? In the figure above, where the character of Bernardo Bernardo frowns at the sight of Alex who irritatingly asks for extra money is an example of the numerous instances where the lighting is predominantly red, and at times coupled with the color blue. At times, the color red is transmitted by an idiosyncratic mise-en-scene element like the red bag of Alma Moreno’s character. Bernal’s strategy is to construct mood and mystery i. e. the red bag. But at a closer look, the red and blue lighting particularly occurs at night and is recurrent all throughout the film.

What is notable in Bernal’s usage of the device is its expressionistic overtone. Expressionism in cinema started way before the 1981. Bordwell noted in Film Art that the first exhaustive usage of it was in a silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) which was part of German Expressionism in the 1920s. The effect of expressionism is to use film aesthetics to depict the subjective nature of the character. What filmmaker do is to distort either sound, mise-en-scene, cinematography and even editing to subjectively express the characters’ thoughts and dispositions. This technique is extended in talkies of 1930s to 1940s’ film noir genre. It heavily influenced Scorsese’s works during 1970s primarily in Mean Streets (1971) and Taxi Driver (1976). It is by large a establish film technique exploited by many filmmakers including Bernal in Manila by Night.

Subjective mise-en-scene: Bernal used red color filters to create mood and at the same time, depict the character's own thoughts through such style.

The outcome of his practice is promising. One might observe that the usage of extreme red and blue light occurs when character bathe in it are either at an intense emotional state, as in the figure above or when the character elicits introspection on his or her emotions. The usage might not be as direct as that in Dr. Caligari, but it works stylistically well in Bernal’s picture. Realism, an obvious category to which this film fits, is so uniformly spread in Manila by Night that it does not subscribe to over distortions of the film. Its realism follows a shot/reverse shot convention with continuity editing and the persona of the characters are psychologically complex. Also, the mise-en-scene used in film, streets and sidewalks of Manila, gay bars, sauna baths, dining room, parks are placed in its typical arrangement. This restricts Bernal’s choice as to what extent his usage of expressionism might be. He does this effectively by using the aspects of coloration to highlight the subjective emotions of the character. At the same time, it establishes the realism of it the characters and it mise-en-scene. This expressionistic realism technique gave room for misinterpretation especially with conservative audiences during the release of the film.

This technique of expressionism is one of subtleties in the film. Bernal expanded this device to cinematographic effects such as using hand-held camera when Alex’s mother and father found out that he was drug user. Bernal made it affectingly and function-wise.


What Bernal contained in Manila by Night is a series of complex strategies in filmmaking. Not only did he structure Manila by Night with a temporal divide of day and night, but he constructs it from the interior by using the character’s subjective persona to redefine its filmic space. His methods used in the film vary from the creation of subtle effects such as mise-en-scene entrapment to the creation of expressionistic effects such as his usage of the red-blue overlay. Bernal combined these filmic elements, and together with a great ensemble cast, have pieced together a remarkable film that will endure time.

Submitted to Film 12 Instructor - July 1, 2010