Sunday, October 12, 2008

Lino Brocka's 'Insiang' as viewed by American youths

Lino Brocka's Insiang, as viewed by a gaggle of American youths 

(Note: overall story and plot twists discussed in close detail)

Spent a week talking about the Philippines to a few American youths, roughly sixteen to eighteen years of age. Spent a day on general information (location, capital, most common religion, so on and so forth), two days on history (from Lapu Lapu to the 1986 EDSA Revolution), and topped everything off with a screening of Insiang (Lino Brocka, 1976).

I know, I know--I assured the Powers That Be the film had no nudity, showed them the DVD cover's synopsis (which reveals altogether too much of the plot--hid that in a desk drawer, so they wouldn't ask to read it), and apparently it's okay. Just before the start of the screening, warned the young 'uns that this would be a very rough-looking film, no glossy production values, no fancy Hollywood special effects, and some of it will be, uh, strong, as in: a little hard to stomach. Then pressed 'play.'

And straight off we're treated to the sight of Ruel Vernal as Dado, plunging his knife into a pig's throat. Young men and women gasped; no dewy innocents, these, I've heard them talk before of the elaborate tortures in Saw and Hostel with lip-smacking relish, and here they were, horrified at the sight of an upside-down pig gushing blood from a large hole in its neck. Had to explain a few details--that the carcasses are plunged into boiling water to make it easier to shave off the hairs, that the pigs are real pigs, and yes, they're really dead (Hollywood's done so many elaborate effects, I suppose, that they have a difficult time seeing the difference--or maybe they've never seen a real onscreen death and couldn't accept the difference, had to ask me to confirm it, or ask questions to help digest it).

Most interesting of all was one young man who'd previously talked at length and with great enthusiasm about serial killers (he'd even mentioned the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, among others)--he slapped his hands over his eyes and turned away. "I thought you'd be used to this sort of thing," I said. "But those were animals!" he replied. "I don't mind humans (I confess, I raised an eyebrow in response), but animals aren't evil--"

He had a point, I suppose (animals according to certain anthropologists, have no sense of shame or guilt (and by implication no moral awareness)). But go figure.

They were full of questions--is that how Filipinos lived today (about 33% do, I said, mostly in the countryside)? Do you live that way (I was middle class, and grateful for it)? Why do they eat with their hands (it's an art, a graceful one, and not as easy as you'd think)? Then came the moment when Insiang's mother Tonya (Mona Lisa), after cavorting with Dado (the butcher from film's opening), first confronts a shocked Insiang, and is forced to squat and urinate in front of her daughter ("the house is that small," is all I could say). The kids exclaimed again, with gasps almost as loud as in the slaughterhouse scene. Thirty minutes into the picture and if the opening scenes of butchery didn't fascinate (same time it shocked and disgusted) them, the premise (which became clear at about this point) definitely did: Insiang in living with her mother was also forced to live with her mother's lover, in the same tiny shack.

Beyond which point Brocka, dead now for some seventeen years, did not for even a second let them off the hook. It helps that Tonya is such a harpy, Dado an unregenerate bastard, Insiang a quintessentially innocent maiden, each a familiar stereotype ready to be shattered.

Dado is possibly Brocka's masterpiece of a villainous sketch: with the film's very first frame we're introduced to the man elbow-deep in blood, a pig-killer (comments ranged from "poor pigs!" to "that's why I don't eat pork"). Helps that cinematographer Conrado Baltazar's camerawork is so claustrophobically tight, with a plainspoken rhetoric--only in the outdoors and once indoors (during a crucial bedroom scene) does the camera actually move, either sideways or forward; only then, it's suggested, is there sufficient space for motion (and in fact the camera barely had any space available; art director Fiel Zabat revealed that the walls of Tonya's little shack was gimmicked to break away and came back together to make room for the camera). I kept thinking that if Elia Kazan had been able to set A Streetcar named Desire in a similarly crowded, similarly wretched slum area, it would have been s more powerful experience.

I'd broken the film down to three sections, to be viewed each succeeding day (they had thirty minutes a day to view a movie), which worked out fine; I'd mentioned before how perfectly structured I thought the film's script was (from the teleplay by Mario O'Hara, adapted for the screen by Lamberto Antonio), and bang on time at the end of each thirty minute interval there was a narrative hook (in the second segment it was a rape, and its immediate consequences).

By this time I'd noticed how, well, involved these young men and women were--they'd sit down quick as they could, no fuss at all, and watched in rapt attention, even if the film was in Tagalog and they had to read English subtitles (they even asked to have the volume turned up, as if that would help (actually it probably does--the ambient sound and music helps immerse them in Insiang's world)).

Truth and untruth in this otherwise simple film is, I believe a key issue. I pointed out the dialogue, especially responses to questions--when someone was dissembling or duplicitous, he or she wouldn't give a straight reply, but would return the inquiry with another question: "Do you love me?" "What do you think?" "Are the two of you involved?" "Why don't you ask him?" Interesting to note that the simplest answer of all--"yes"--is the most convincing (with its straightforward manner, eyes leveled directly at the interrogator's face), yet ultimately misleading: the responder's words are truthful up to a point; beyond that, though, is a secretly pursued agenda that the questioner never knew about, or even suspected. It is, I suspect, the answer of a full-blown sociopath.

By film's end there were shocked stares and dropped jaws everywhere. I had to explain the very ending, which involved little dialogue ( I believe Brocka followed O'Hara's teleplay up to Insiang's explanation of her actions to her mother; after which is the conclusion forced on Brocka by the Marcos censors, who insisted that a daughter can't completely reject her mother). I brought up what was arguably the most interesting question of all: who was the worse character, Dado (who raped Insiang), Tonya (who oppressed Insiang when she could and first brought Dado into the house), or Insiang herself?

The answers were varied and illuminating. Many picked Dado for using Tonya and raping Insiang; others picked Tonya for her poor treatment of Insiang; still others picked Insiang herself. A few thought "none of them" (meaning each--unconsciously quoting Renoir--had their reasons), a few others said "all of them" (meaning they're all equally rotten). I admitted to agreeing with the Insiang faction, pointing out Insiang's expression as she witnessed Dado's stabbing. "I think she's getting off on it," I told them. "I think it's exactly what she wanted." I noted, however, that my comments were only meant to support my opinion, that there isn't any one correct and definitive answer, and that theirs is as valid as mine.

I pointed out that depending on where you were in the film, your perception of who was the most abusive changed (for the record: I thought it was Tonya in the first segment, Dado in the second, Insiang in the third), and how much say Tonya or Dado's acts eclipse Insiang's would depend on how grievous one felt their crimes were (Tonya for long-term child abuse, Dado for rape and manipulation, Insiang for--well, for manipulation, certainly; anything more is open to argument). One perceptive young man noted "Insiang has become her mother," to which I replied "we all end up as our parents. You're absolutely right--Insiang didn't just learn the skill of manipulating others from anyone; she learned it from the best, her mother, and in fact exceeded her. Insiang learned her lessons too well."

I tried justifying the butchery at the picture's beginning to the serial-killer enthusiast who covered his eyes--I basically called the scene Brocka's opening gesture, his way of raising a baton high prior to launching into the symphony itself. The opening not only foreshadows the film's climax but also suggests (quoting Marlowe) that this is Manila, nor are we out of it; this is how it is in the big city, this is what happens to those unable to defend themselves. This was Brocka's way of saying "physical violence and suffering can be hard, but there's worse--" Bad as the opening slaughter is, I believe that what happens during the course of the film leaves scars more terrible and more permanent than from any mere physical harm.

One young man commented that Insiang reminded him of a cousin he knew, to which I replied: "Of course; this is the Philippines, a land where people eat with their hands, pigs are slaughtered in hellish conditions and a toilet is a cement hole in the ground. But people are still people, they need love, they suffer, they are kind or cruel to each other. Beyond the exotic location and strange details of a faraway society you know these people (and in fact O'Hara based his screenplay on what had happened to his backyard neighbors). You recognize them as people not so different from yourselves, after all."

Postscript: I added by way of conclusion that "every story has a moral, obvious or not so obvious. What was the moral of this film?"

"Never live with your mother and her boyfriend!" "Poverty can make people do terrible things." "Revenge doesn't get you anywhere."

"Good stuff. But more than a bald statement, I think the film asks a question: did anyone in this film come out ahead?"

"Yeah--Insiang. She got away with murder!"

"Did she? Think about it. After walking away from the prison, what do you think she does next?"

"Marry the boy that loves her (Marlon Ramirez)!"

"And then what? Can you imagine what their relationship will be like? Remember the look in Insiang's face while she watched Dado bleeding? Can you imagine that poor boy living the rest of his life with her?

"Which is basically my point. Hate and anger are not so much cyclical as they are viral. They spread, from unseen father, leaving his wife for another woman, to mother, taking it out on her daughter, to daughter bottling it up till it festered and bubbled and finally exploded. Then she takes it to that poor young man--or any other poor young man she happens to meet. It never ends. It never ends."



Oggs Cruz said...

Brave thing you did, Noel.

Are you living anywhere near New York? I'll be visiting New York this November and would love to have dinner or some snacks (whichever you prefer) with you. I can hook you up with some copies of O'Hara's DVDs that have been released commercially, if you are interested.

Noel Vera said...

Sorry, nowhere near New York; I'm five hours away. But I'd like to talk to you. Email me a phone number or something...

Noel Vera said...

Oh--and thanks.

Plus, I added a few more thoughts to the post above.

Diegogue said...

great movie, and your point of view about Insiang is very interesting, I think Philipines has very similarities with my country, Colombia

Noel Vera said...

That's very interesting. I've always thought the Philippine shared more in common with South American countries than with its Southeast Asian neighbors. Care to elaborate on those similarities?

Diegogue said...

well, first of all, we share the catholic spanish heritage, with all its prejudices, but with all its strange imagery too. The Insiang story could be happen in any poor neighborhood in South America (Caracas, Bogota, Mexico DF, Rio de Janeiro), here we can understand those cruel situation as something usual, and at the same time, I can understand the surprise of your North American students, they don't understand the subculture, and the weird way of the tragedy in the third world (I think this kind of tragedy is nearer to the greek tragedy, more than the contemporary standard holliwood drama if you ask me).

I knew the Philipines Cinema recently, and I'm very surprised with the strenght of the stories, and the clever sight of the filmakers like Lino Brocka in the 70's, and Brillante Mendoza in the last years

Noel Vera said...

I like the Greek tragedy observation--Elektra comes to mind. I don't know if you read the article I link to above, a piece I wrote for the DVD release, where I note similarities to Shakespeare's Othello.