Friday, October 27, 2006

One cheap shot deserves another: a reply to an article on "Insiang"

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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 clich├ęs 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.


Etchie said...

i haven't really seen Insiang the way critics allowed their viscerals to hibernate on it, and to provide a critical comment might turn out basically on assumptions and a shallow review on the film.

but somehow there is still a kernel of truth on Rowin's accusation (merely on the 1st paragraph, i'll say)---that one thing we could accept that the film is a Brocka's masterpiece just because it came from Third World--the way they look at Satyajit Ray or Abbas Kiarostami. Although we cannot deny there is discrimination on the critic's part (which i could probably attribute to his typical fondness for McFilms: burgers and fries and anything that give him the cholesterol-high), I bet he hasn't seen the best of what Third World countries yield.

nice reply, by the way, Noel :)

Noel Vera said...

Thanks! The writer does seem to have substantial things to say about filmmakers like Lynch and's just that when he turns that intellectually powerful spotlight on Insiang the light seems considerably doused. I expect more, even of a negative review.

Etchie said...

but he considers this as Brocka's masterpiece...i wonder if he'd seen the others?


i have nothing important to say except 'hi, noel.'

Noel Vera said...

He'd been told it's Brocka's masterpiece. I think it is. No, apparently he hasn't seen anything else.

I love it when a big hairy guy walks into some country's cinema and just pisses all over it. All on the basis of one film.

Noel Vera said...

"hi noel!"

Jerome? That you? So you quit Bomba Star?

Anonymous said...

Hi there, Noel! Nice new blog more user-friendly than your previous one. Keep up the good work man, and best regards!

Noel Vera said...

Hi, ronald, is this keats? Drop by more often...


How great kung meron talagang magazine na Bomba Star:) My username ediTrixiaGomez combines 'editor' (which i am), and Trixia Gomez, 70s bomba star (who i aspire to be). I resigned from StarStudio Magazine of ABS-CBN. How are you and what have you been doing?

Anonymous said...

Yep its me, keats. Will you update your Top Ten best Pinoy Films of all-time?

Its about time, man.

Noel Vera said...

The point of an all-time list is that it doesn't change so easy, keats. It may evolve, but not regularly. I haven't seen anything that would change my list.

I've been fine, Jerome. Still writing for Businessworld, under Lali Herrera. Just went to New York, as you see. Still writing about films; most foreign critics are interested in what I know about Filipino films, apparently.

So why'd you resign and what are your plans?

Patrick said...

Hello Noel, glad to see you have a more accessible blog now.

dodo dayao said...

Hey Noel!

Stumbled on this from your old place.Updated my links and all. Just dropped in to say hi.For now.

In a bit of a hurry so I'll read the article(s) later. :)

ChrisJ said...

So the movie is from the third world? What's the second and fourth by the way? Is America the first world or still the new world?

I'm soooo confused.

Great response, screw this knucklehead...

Noel Vera said...

Hi, Dodo, yes, do drop by. And update your blog dammit; there's a dearth of intelligent film writing out there.

Thanks Chris; I've said my piece, I'm moving on.

Anonymous said...

Hi Noel,

This critic seems to be unfamiliar with Filipino movies. Most foreign critics seem to hate "melodrama". For me it's just another movie genre like horror, film noir, etc.


Noel Vera said...

This critic seems to be unfamiliar with Filipino movies

Ya think?

Most critics love Sirk and Fassbinder, and assert that their visual and storyteling styles take apart and criticize melodrama. What they seem to hate is melodrama taken straight, no chaser, the way Brocka and most Filipinos have it.

Anonymous said...

i'd like to respond to some, if not all, of the points made against my review of "insiang." it may be virtually unheard of for a critic to do this, but looking back on the review i now feel the need to offer an apology for its content. even though i headed the review with warnings about the extremely flawed context in which i was writing, in hindsight it seems that the review suffers from my inability to meet the film or the filmmaker halfway. maybe this is why others who have commented on my review on this blog have wrongly described my taste for "mcfilms" -- if you go through the history of my reviews you'll see that is clearly not so. i also didn't mean to walk "into some country's cinema and just [piss] all over it." the idea was to try to make sense of my own reactions to something that seemed hokey and hamfisted and yet has received a ton of praise and "classic" status. however, i readily admit that in the process of doing so i resorted to a flip, smug condescension that ruined any such investigation.
that said, what i was trying to get at in my review is that the problem with "insiang" is its intentions -- which mr. vera details so well in his post -- are sabotaged by an ineffective realization. that's why i came down so hard on the intended melodramatics and social commentary of "insiang." if the message of the film rings clear, the way in which it is imparted doesn't because brocka uses techniques i found overwrought and ponderous, and which i took as a sign of the director's uncomplicated didacticism.
perhaps i am guilty, as someone suggested, of not being able to "get" brocka's brand of "straight no chaser" melodrama. maybe "insiang" is too low for me, too simple, as mr. vera suggests, and thus i have failed to appreciate the film's unpretentious visceral power. i can't argue against those charges, but it still doesn't excuse what i concede to being an unnuanced review.
but this review was an unfortunate anomaly. i would suggest you read my other articles, reviews, and interviews before judging my approach as whole -- something i failed to do for brocka's body of work. i am interested in becoming better informed and knowledgeable on all facets of cinema, and i now have this blog favorited on my list of regular reading in order to learn more about filipino cinema. maybe the snide tone of my language and my unintentional condescension toward another culture (i contritely apologize for all "third world cinema" references) precludes any forgiveness for which i might ask, but i hope mr. vera and the readers of his blog give my criticism another chance in the future. as for myself, i know i'll be giving this blog's contents a close reading for now on -- it's a force to be reckoned with.


Noel Vera said...

To Mr. Rowin;

Thanks for your generous response to my post. I did note in an earlier comment that in your other articles--which I did read, provoked by the first one--I was impressed by what you had to say of other films. I concede that your basic point of view--of an essentially direct, unnuanced melodrama--would be difficult to challenge (tho I disagree), and I'm fine with that; I do know critics who are not fans of the film, critics I also respect, and I do believe it's the nature of the medium that there isn't any uniform regard towards any single work.

I'd like to point out a few other Filipino filmmakers that might be more to your taste. Maybe not Gerardo de Leon, whose vampire films are still in the same melodramatic vein, albeit even more old-fashioned and mannered, but whose pictures are easily available, and whose visual style does I think display a cool intelligence (which I admire, very much). Maybe Mario O'Hara, whose Babae sa Breakwater and The Fatima Buen Story (both available on Netflix or DVD--not perhaps his best works, but representative enough) I think treats similar melodrama at arm's length, again with more visual intelligence.

I might also recommend Lav Diaz's films; not easily available but hopefully will be screened at some New York festival or another. Diaz frankly dislikes melodrama, and works for hours (hence the length of his films) against it.

And then there's the possibility of a Cinemaginasian Filipino film festival again next year, in June, which I might attend; I would like to invite you to see maybe a few of the films, maybe all. I do hope you will give our cinema another chance.

Anonymous said...

I'm no film expert, I'm very far from it, although i have watched. I also like actor Ruel Vernal (or Bernal), the one who portrayed Dado, for his villain roles. he's a very good actor.

Now, about Mr. Rowin's take on Insiang, well, let's put it this way: a film, in my personal opinion, should be viewed in its cultural perspective. For example, the Film INSIANG. If you viewed INSIANG and you're quite familiar on how Tondo was (during the time this film was taken).

A film should not only be viewed on its intellectual view, but it's cultural view. If possible, although it's not practical, read stuff on

What if there's a deviation from the norms and culture? Now that's where you'll make a statement (but i think you guys know a lot better)...

Forgive my outsider's viewpoint.

Noel Vera said...

I'd noted before filmmaker Tikoy Aguiluz's assertion, that the great theme of Philippine cinema is the sacrifice of the mother and salvation of the family, and that Insiang is one of a handful of films (Kisapmata being another) that proves to be a memorable exception to that rule.