Friday, October 27, 2006
One cheap shot deserves another: a reply to an article on "Insiang"
Ruel Vernal, Hilda Koronel and Mona Lisa in Insiang
(Warning: plot discussed in close detail)
In a summer, 2006 issue of Reverse Shot, an article by Mr. Michael Joshua Rowin on Insiang.
It's amazing the kind of reactions we can get on seeing a film, even one with a supposedly high reputation as this one. The writer admits as much, that a "variety of sources, all reliable" informed him of its status as Brocka's masterpiece. He whets his witty prose and proceeds to carve smooth chunks out of the film: is its status as 'masterpiece,' he speculates, only a matter of relativity--like, as he puts it, "calling Phone Booth Joel Schumacher’s magnum opus?" Is Brocka "a mediocre to bad director who nonetheless remains one of the Philippine’s few cinematic representatives on the world stage, thus allowing his output a free pass?" Is Insiang "by any standard, simply a hokey, silly piece of cheese that has earned its reputation—one might theorize—because of its status as Third World Art?"
Cheese, incidentally, is a luxury not quite as popular in our corner of the Third World (What a quaint term! Are there people in the world still unaware of how offensive that sounds to Asian ears?), partly because so many of the population are lactose intolerant, partly because few cows flourish in our tropical climate--but never mind; the man has a point. Has Brocka--and by extension Insiang--received what accolades it has received mainly because of film and filmmaker's status as low-budget heroes of Southeast Asia?
Mr. Rowin admits to not knowing much about our cinema, although "Lord knows I’ve tried to learn something about Brocka and his work in the weeks between the screening of Insiang and the writing of this review." Lord knows, it's too much to ask a man to perhaps do his research before watching a film, in case either film, filmmaker or context would prove difficult to understand. I have always thought Insiang, of all Filipino films, needed no introduction for a foreigner to appreciate--but that assumption has apparently been shattered, and we Filipinos should just humbly accept this contrary view.
But hold on, there's more: he makes much out of the fact that Brocka is a Mormon convert, and points to a "missionary morality, a sense that the world’s wickedness is a pure state in need of nothing less than divine clean-up"--which means what, exactly? Does feeling the need of some kind of apocalyptic cleansing preclude giving an artist respect? Brocka was also gay and openly so by 1976, a fact I doubt that the Mormons appreciate as openly; would Mr. Rowin be more ready to accept Brocka's "missionary morality" if he knew that said morality included homosexuals like Brocka in the clean-up?
But that's not the gist of Mr. Rowin's complaint, apparently; he homes in on the "unfiltered melodrama, the kind of unironic paean to Greek tragedy that without the appropriate critical distance or at the very least a sense of humor becomes a soggy, unintentional joke." He adds "(r)ather than the dirty grace of, say, Bresson’s Mouchette, Brocka develops the character’s downward spiral as uncomplicatedly as possible."
I don't know how radically standards of "complicatedliness" differ between Third and First Worlds, but may I offer to Mr. Rowin the possibility that he may have missed out on some of the complications? The fact, for one, that while Insiang turns vengeful Dado, her rapist, becomes hapless and even rather pitiful? The first time he comes to Insiang's bed we laugh when he declares his love for her; we think it's his usual bullshit (oh yes, humor--it's supposed to be totally absent from this film). In the next few scenes we learn that Dado's sincere (or as sincere as any man can be), that he really wants to run away and live with her, and plans his life accordingly. I don't know about First World critics, but a man this besotted deserves not just my laughter (I agree, the tattoo of his own name on his own chest is a bit much--but say that aloud in the streets of Tondo, and you're likely to get an icepick buried in your kidney) but my sympathy.
That the mother, "bitch" as Mr. Rowin may call her (I consider her monstrous, myself), became that way not without cause--a cause that Brocka and actress Mona Lisa take care to show to us on the big screen? Aside from the husband that abandoned her (an understandable cause for "bitchiness," I would imagine--but I wouldn't know what First World viewers can understand) Tonya is a handsome but aging woman who loves sex but is in the worst situation in the world to enjoy it. If she has to throw her in-laws out, keep the faucet running all night to cover the noise, believe her lover over her own daughter to keep enjoying that sex, well…but none of this obvious onscreen, apparently.
That the shape the plot takes isn't that of a downward spiral (a simple shape, it's true--are simple shapes such a bad thing?) at all but of a triangle--or, rather, a trio of inmates, hopelessly linked; that mother exploits daughter exploits lover exploits mother in an endless daisy chain, wrongdoing piling atop wrongdoing, and we can't say who is wrong or right anymore? That beyond Mr. Rowin's beloved "downward spiral" is this blurring line between victim and victimizer, blamer and blamed?
Mr. Rowin goes on to do something rather distasteful: he writes a detailed account of the film's story, giving away the ending in the process. "Apologies for the summary," he offers by way of explanation, "but the best way to truly account for this rote film is to offer a rote description." I would dearly love to offer up excuses for Mr. Rowin--that he had a migraine that day, that it was his time of the month, that the video he saw (he may say he has "seen plenty of video transfers of films" that he has liked, but I wonder if someone who still uses the term "Third World" in an actual article is really used to the kind of horrifyingly muddy video transfers common in Manila). Truth of the matter is, I can't think of any decent excuse for his offering this rote dismissal of a film he has acknowledged various sources ("all reliable" as he put it) have called a "masterpiece." I accept his reaction, even accept his sarcasm; I would have liked to know, in detail, what led him to said reaction, and why. I think a film beloved of many a "reliable" viewer (don't know who they are, but I assume they would include film critics Pierre Rissient and Dave Kehr among many others)--just how "reliable" does he feel these sources are, and just how much respect is he willing to accord their view (in the sense that he must reconcile his contrary one)? Not much, apparently.
Mr. Rowin says "Brocka gives no indication that he sees any connection between the vicious circle of his characters’ deceptions and the world around them," claiming that "too much gets left to “human nature” and the worst clichés of psychological dwarfism" (is this reprehensible as opposed to, say "psychological giantism?"): he accuses Bebot of abandoning Insiang in the motel room " because it works for the plot and, heck, that’s what young men usually do to young women." But would it have pleased Mr. Rowin more if the young man had done what is not usually done to young women? That they had gone into a motel room together and Bebot, say, tried on instead some of the fabulous lipstick Insiang had borrowed from her friend? If this is "what young men usually do" (if it's psychologically plausible, I assume he means) and it "works for the plot" as well, wouldn't that qualify it as a well-written plot point? That maybe some of the "complicatedliness" and novelty he seems to be seeking will be found elsewhere, in the aforementioned triangle?
And just how else are you supposed to show connections "between the vicious circle of his characters’ deceptions and the world around them?" Have some socially conscious figure expound on the subject, at length? Draw a diagram, perhaps? Didn't Mr. Rowin notice that in Tonya's rejection of her in-laws she is in effect rejecting wholesale the community's mores? That there is commentary being made on the unfolding drama by the community--mostly represented by Insiang's best friend, the one with the fabulous lipstick (and that the best friend's own brother offers an opposing view?)? Aren't those connections, however tenuous (I don't think so, myself) between the characters and "the world around them?"
And if “human nature” can't determine motivation then what can--computer coding? I've said I don't mind the odd contrary view, but this particular contrariness seems difficult to understand (perhaps it's because my Third World sensibilities are so crude and insensitive). Perhaps (since he's evoked Bresson) he expects some kind of distancing stylization, with all the actors standing on their right foot and declaiming in iambic pentameter--to which I can only offer this poor reply from Mario O'Hara, the writer of Insiang: "The problem with many European films is that they are so intellectual. That’s good for the European audience, but we Filipinos are so much simpler. Our dramas are simple, our attack is simple."
Perhaps that's the problem: the film is too simple for Mr. Rowin to get. It doesn't fly over his head, it crawls too low beneath for him to be able to pick up. A simple slum drama isn't enough for him; he needs intellectual mediation, a way to keep the stink and grime of Tondo at arm's length (he characterizes the opening slaughterhouse scene as "unnecessary"--his opinion, of course, but for me it both strikes the right note of ever-threatening violence found in the slums and foreshadows Tonya's reaction to Dado's betrayal). But I wouldn't know; I am but a Third World viewer, and this is but a Third World film.