The Storyline of Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980)

I wrote the following synopsis for my contribution to the well-received Queer Film Classics series of Vancouver-based Arsenal Pulp Press. The film I proposed to cover was (what else) Manila by Night. Since overshooting publishers’ expectations and revising by cutting down is easier for me than adding more material, I made the entry as detailed as I could. As expected, the editors (Matthew Hays and Thomas Waugh) told me to drastically reduce what I presented – necessarily violating the plotline: the synopsis now found in the book is an enumeration of the names of the major characters and the most significant events that happened to each one. For those who wish to refresh their memory of the film without having to watch it all over, and who also won’t have the time to go through the full-length screenplay at Kritika Kultura, here’s the account of Manila by Night’s narrative as I had drafted it:

Virgie, a middle-class housewife, rushes her family so they can attend her son Alex’s folk-music performance. At the club, Kano, a lesbian drug pusher, sells some goods to Alex’s friends while Manay, a gay couturier, develops a crush on Alex – whose performance is interrupted by a gunshot and the ensuing melee. Kano proceeds to a massage parlor where a blind masseuse, Bea, is her girlfriend; Kano interrupts Bea’s profanity-laden quarrel with another masseuse, and offers her some weed to calm her down. Along with Gaying, Bea’s Girl Friday, they light up at the parlor rooftop overlooking the city lights where Kano declares her love for Manila.

Meanwhile at a Chinese restaurant, Febrero, a taxi driver, picks up Baby, his waitress girlfriend whom he keeps promising to marry. After Febrero drops off Baby and gets home, his wife Adelina arrives, takes off her nurse uniform, and starts having sex with him; one of their children wakes up and they have to prepare baby formula. The next morning, Virgie prepares her children for school, scolding Alex for failing to budget his allowance and warding off her retired-policeman husband’s amorous advances. Her maid announces an unexpected visitor: Miriam, Virgie’s former co-worker in the sex trade, who requests that Virgie ask her husband to provide police protection for her circle of sex workers; Virgie scolds Miriam for being unable to improve her lot in life.

An assistant awakens Manay, the gay couturier, since some guests had already arrived at his atelier; among them is Evita, a name-dropping socialite who regales the other guests with her account of kinky sex the night before. Manay hides the man he brought home for the night and welcomes his lover Febrero, the taxi driver. Febrero asks Manay for money for his sick child and, as Manay hands over some cash, tells him he heard about Febrero’s new girlfriend, a bumpkin waitress. Alex, Virgie’s son, waits for his girlfriend Vanessa after her dismissal from a Catholic school. They go to a motel for sex and drugs and Alex presents her with a necklace, from the money he bought using the additional allowance he wangled from Virgie.

Bea, Kano’s girlfriend, bids farewell to her live-in boyfriend Greg Williams, who’s going to Saudi Arabia as an overseas worker, Greg promising to send for her as soon as he gets a foothold in the Middle East kingdom. Nighttime, Manay has gone to Febrero and Ade’s house, to bring them some groceries. He asks Febrero for a date, helps Ade with her nurse uniform, and offers to take her to the public hospital where she works. In Manay’s car, Ade tells Manay how she loves Febrero for his willingness to take care of her and her children by other men. At the restaurant, Baby is accosted by Sonny, a customer who says she can make more money if she agrees to take on Japanese customers. Offended, Baby breaks away and tells Febrero what the man said; Febrero challenges the pimp to a fistfight but the stranger overpowers him.

Alex and his friends try to score some pot from Kano, who tells them to wait for her; the guys go an outdoor disco where they watch working-class transvestites having a good time. After they complete the transaction with Kano, she recommends that they try out Bea for sex service. At Alex’s home, Virgie massages her husband, but because of her anxiety over Alex’s whereabouts, she pauses to take a tranquilizer. At the massage parlor, Alex, while enjoying a scrub-down and massage from Bea, asks her about her blind condition; Bea replies that she has no regrets about her profession, and that she’s looking forward to working abroad when her boyfriend sends for her. In a slum district, Kano negotiates with some potential clients, then tells them to beat it when she notices plainclothes police trailing her; she evades them by disappearing up a narrow alleyway.

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At a crowded disco, Alex dances with Vanessa but acknowledges Manay’s signals to him. He excuses himself to go to the restroom, followed by Manay, the two of them agreeing to meet up after he brings Vanessa home. In a parking lot, Febrero and Baby are engaged in heavy petting in his taxicab, with Febrero convincing Baby to put out by claiming to love her and promising marriage as usual; their session (and those of other necking couples) is interrupted by a security guard who uses a megaphone to tell everyone to get off “private property.”

Meanwhile, after having had sex, Manay makes Alex promise to have no other gay lover; Alex agrees, but asks Manay to get help for Bea’s blindness. Manay goes to the massage parlor as a heart-attack victim is being brought out and bumps into Kano. The two of them have a discussion about true love, with Kano confessing that Bea’s her true love although she couldn’t extract the same level of commitment from her, and Manay stating that he doesn’t believe that love is more than just an illusion. While taking Bea to her home in Chinatown, Manay admits to being cynical about people’s claims while Bea tells him she just ignores anything that’s irrelevant to her; they agree to meet later to look for an eye specialist.

At the driveway of the hospital where Ade works, Manay, Bea, and Gaying are accosted by a mystic, who tells Bea that she (in an earlier existence) was an infamous 18th-century coquette who broke men’s hearts. The three ogle a movie shoot being set up but are shooed away by a policeman. At the hospital reception desk, Manay approaches the head nurse to call for Ade, whom he thinks could help Bea; the head nurse as well as the other nurses couldn’t find Ade’s name in the employees’ logbook, prompting an exchange of words between them and Manay. Ade is in fact at a rich man’s home, quarreling with the guy because of his excessive jealousy.

At the Luneta, the people’s park, Manay tells Febrero that Ade has been deceiving all of them, while his friends discuss how in love he is with the taxi driver, and as some cultists pray to the spirit of light and a poet extols the city to street urchins. When Febrero gets home he waits for Ade but responds coldly to her advances, causing her to confess how truly she loves him. At Alex’s home, Virgie takes another tranquilizer and goes outdoors; her husband steps out to comfort her, and she tells him how she misses their son’s youthful innocence.

Late at night near a desolate slum canal, Kano encounters her girlfriend Bea, but the latter pushes her away. Gaying (Bea’s assistant) explains that Bea’s depressed because Ade turned out to be a fake nurse. Kano comforts Bea by giving her some cough syrup. They step into a pushcart and make love while Gaying steals some underwear from a neighbor’s clothesline. At the red-light district, Febrero and Baby are stranded in a traffic jam caused by a car collision; Baby tells Febrero that she’s pregnant but he erupts in anger, scolding her for failing to take precaution. While cleaning house, Virgie discovers a stick of pot and the stash it came from in Alex’s cabinet drawer, and she and her husband take turns beating him up; all bruised and bloodied, he runs away from home.

In the restaurant, Sonny, the same pimp who beat up Febrero, tells Baby that her lover won’t be returning now that she’s pregnant; he points out how the restaurant owner has thrown out his waitress-girlfriend in the rain, and tells Baby that she should play smart if she wishes to survive. In a residential slum district, as Bea quarrels with a neighbor, her boyfriend Greg Williams suddenly shows up. She follows him indoors and he explains how his labor recruiter abandoned him and his fellow workers in Bangkok, en route to Saudi Arabia, and how he had to work as a waiter while borrowing money so he could come home. Bea snaps at Gaying for having been gone too long, then starts to blame Greg for his failure.

Religious devotees bring an icon of Our Lady of Fatima to Vanessa’s family. Virgie asks Vanessa where she could find Alex and Vanessa tells her that he’s staying with a gay couturier. Virgie goes to Manay’s atelier to fetch Alex; while waiting, she listens to Manay’s friend, Evita, narrate how she came down with vaginal herpes and had to fend off a horny doctor who wanted to take advantage of her in the hospital. Manay wakes up Alex and brings him to his mother, but Alex runs out and Virgie goes after him. Manay tells Evita and his gay chums how Alex’s mom used to be a former prostitute who became first the mistress then the wife of a powerful police officer. Outdoors, Virgie pleads with Alex not to run away again.

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At a side street, Baby sees Ade walking by and asks her to get Febrero to help her, saying that Febrero promised to marry her. Ade says Febrero’s married, but not to either of them, and that he also has a gay lover, so she (Baby) would be better off terminating her pregnancy. After unsuccessfully searching for drugs in his room, Alex joins his gang at the breakwater of Manila Bay. They discuss with Kano how exciting they find life in Manila. A troupe of costumed revelers arrives and the druggies decide to join in by undressing and jumping into the water, where they hallucinate about fireworks and being surrounded by floating candles.

Unable to share in the spirit of revelry, Baby stays home and, upon being advised by her mother to seek an abortion, confesses that Febrero (who should shoulder the expense) had stopped contacting her. Febrero in turn tails Ade to the inexpensive hotel she enters in her nurse’s uniform, and waits until she emerges, dressed as an escort; he continues to follow her to the whorehouse where she works. Greg takes Bea on a date to a working-class fairground and tells her how he found a job in the city, one which will enable them to work together.

At the restaurant, Sonny tells Baby to come with him to look for Japanese customers. He brings her to the same place where Ade works and fetches a Japanese john; when Ade arrives later and recognizes Baby, Ade drags her out to the garden and threatens to kill her if she tells Febrero about her illicit profession. Having selected Baby, the Japanese brings her to a hotel room, but while undressing her she gets nauseated, throws up all over him, and finally faints from the prospect of sex work.

In search of drug money, Alex visits Vanessa at her home and asks for the necklace he gave her so he could pawn it; when she refuses he attempts to pull it off her, they tussle, and Vanessa’s mother orders Alex to leave. Alex next goes to Sumpak, a gay bar where Manay and his friends watch go-go boys; after attempting to mooch some cash, Manay takes Alex outdoors and berates him for his addiction. At Alex’s home, his family is having Christmas Eve dinner without him. Virgie’s husband tries to cheer everyone up by telling stories about a gay client in the courtroom, but Virgie erupts in anger at her youngest daughter for failing to use her utensils properly.

Meanwhile at the tourist belt, Greg is leading Bea to their new workplace, but she hears a hawker announcing a live-sex performance; realizing that she and Greg will be the performers, she kicks and screams but cannot escape from him because of her blindness. Outside the tourist belt cathedral, Baby spots Febrero and runs to him, asking him to help her with her pregnancy; Febrero runs away, and Baby curses him and screams about Ade being a call girl who services Japanese clients. Going home in her nurse’s uniform, Ade walks down an abandoned alley, gets dragged by an unknown assailant and strangled to death, with the New Year’s Eve fireworks drowning out her cries.

At the morgue, Manay with his gay friends, along with a grieving Febrero and a drugged-out Alex, asks the mortician to present Ade’s body so they could pay their respects; the mortician shows a corpse of an old woman wearing a nurse’s uniform, causing Manay to argue with him. After checking his records, the mortician apologizes to them and says it’s someone with a similar-sounding name, and that Ade’s body was flown to another island but the funeral parlor will arrange to return it immediately. Febrero faints when he hears the news and Manay runs out and has a nervous breakdown.

At the massage parlor, Alex is harassing Bea by borrowing money from her. Kano, being chased by plainclothesmen, runs inside to ask Bea to hide her but the latter refuses. When Kano, followed by Alex, escapes through the rooftop exit, Bea tells the plainclothesmen how to find them. Kano and Alex run through the streets chased by three cops. Alex eludes them by hiding in a dark corner but Kano gets cornered and caught, struggling against her captors. Alex walks toward the people’s park, washing his face along the way in a pail of dirty water. Amid the sunrise, with the city waking up and some people heading for work as others do Oriental martial exercises, he lays down on a bed of flowers and falls asleep.

Á!

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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