Thursday, April 05, 2018

Insiang (Lino Brocka, 1976)

Insiang: one unhappy family 

(WARNING: Plot twists and story discussed in explicit detail)

Lino Brocka opens Insiang (1976) with the closeup of a pig stabbed in the throat, blood pouring as if out of a spigot. We see row upon row of headless carcasses, bellies split open from neck to crotch, pink skin not unlike a human corpse. The film's cinematographer, the great Conrado Baltazar, captures the haze heat stink and noise of a busy slaughterhouse like no one else before or since.

An amazing beginning, with image foreshadowing the slaughter to come. The image is also a challenge: "Violence on flesh is nothing compared to the violence that can be inflicted on heart and mind." The slaughterhouse scene strikes a particular note, its message loud and clear: "the worst is yet to come." 

Brocka takes us to the Tondo slums, a cramped community of cobbled-together shanties located near Smoky Mountain (literally a smoldering mountain of garbage, the official dumping ground of Metro Manila at that time). Baltazar's camera captures the stench of choked-up canals, the shudder of corrugated tin nailed to plywood, the din of brown bodies yelling their way through narrow alleyways. 

When we meet Insiang and her mother Tonya they are about to rid themselves of freeloading relatives, a clever little scene that establishes Tonya (the imperious Mona Lisa) as a strong sharp-tongued woman and Insiang (lovely Hilda Koronel) as a gentle soul embarrassed by her mother's scandalous behavior. The scene also introduces a yet-unseen third character, when an in-law accuses Tonya of ulterior motives for getting rid of them: she has a new lover, and needs the additional privacy.

Insiang realizes the truth the worse way possible--at night listening to Tonya and Dado, one of the slaughterhouse butchers (stereotypically villainous Ruel Vernal, in possibly the role of his career). When Tonya comes out of her bedroom (really a corner of the shack closed off with curtain) she faces Insiang's accusing stare. She turns away: her bladder is full and she must squat to urinate in a hole on the floor (the family can't afford the luxury of a toilet bowl).

Insiang's rape--an act swift and brutal as the fist Dado drives into Insiang's gut to shut her up--initiates the girl's turnaround. After Dado, everyone lines up to humiliate or betray her--her mother, by believing Dado over her; her boyfriend Bebot (a young and pretty Rez Cortez) by eloping with then abandoning her in a motel room. With nowhere else to go she returns home to Tonya, and the waiting Dado.

We see the first sign of change when Dado sneaks to Insiang one night and professes his love; Insiang realizes what is being offered and asks a favor. Cut to the slopes of Smoky Mountain, where Dado and his boys surround Bebot, pounding him into bloody pulp. A harrowing scene but also (you sense) a preliminary scene--a fledgling flexing her muscles, trying out new wings. Insiang punishes Bebot for her humiliation; next she addresses the issue of betrayal, the penalty accordingly more severe--

I call Insiang Brocka's masterpiece. It's easily his tautest most intense work with an elegantly structured screenplay (by Lamberto Antonio from the television script by Mario O'Hara--which, in turn, O'Hara had fashioned out of a radio drama by comedienne-writer Mely Tagasa*). It's also Brocka's most atypical, and atypical of even most Filipino films.

The story is marvelously compact with only three significant characters (Dado Tonya Insiang) in essentially a single setting (there are scenes outside of the shanty but they're incidental to the basic drama), the events taking place over a span of a few weeks. There's little fat in this film, little waste--to be honest there's little to waste, which is appropriate considering that utilization is one of the film's underlying main themes: Tonya uses Insiang to revenge herself on her absent husband; Dado uses Tonya to get close to Insiang; Insiang in turn uses Dado to get even with everyone who has wronged her.

The film is comparable to Shakespeare's elegantly plotted Othello only with focus on Iago's rise than on Othello's fall. Insiang shares qualities with Iago--she's driven by hate; she learns to kill indirectly, by manipulating powerful emotions like lust jealousy anger. Iago makes the mistake of holding the knife himself (that's how he's caught); Insiang manages to keep her hands clean, though she's guilty of an arguably greater crime--she repents.**

Insiang lacks the town-wide sprawl of Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting, 1974) the melancholy meander of Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975). It's the rare Brocka film that features true ambiguity--by film's end you can't definitively establish who is good and who evil, who's the rapist and who the raped. You lay blame on and sympathize with all three alike, dancing helplessly in a daisy chain of lust and loathing. 

The film is unique in another sense. Philippine cinema is dominated by the twin overarching themes of 'a mother's love' and 'a family's survival'--nearly all Filipino films revolve on one or the other subject, preferably both. Insiang takes these two great themes and dashes them to the ground, revealing them to be more social constructs than immortal truths. The film in effect is saying: "there are no guarantees, not from family, not from mother; if anything, the most painful betrayals are committed by mother and family both. You are ultimately alone."

*(Interesting and maddening thing about Philippine film history is that so little of it is documented or verifiable; O'Hara told me in an interview that the story of Insiang is based on what happened to the neighbors living behind his family's house in Pasay; Mely Tagasa told me in a separate interview that O'Hara had based his story on a radio drama she had written, and admitted as much when the story debuted onstage as a 2002 theatrical production at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Possibly one, or the other, or both stories are true--that O'Hara might have taken aspects from Ms. Tagasa's script and from his own personal experiences. Possible there's a whole other explanation entirely, and we'll never know for sure.) 

**(I think the film Insiang suffers from two flaws, one self-inflicted the other imposed. There's the premise--that a girl looking like Koronel would be stranded in the slums of Tondo without leaving or becoming some rich man's mistress (Koronel was and remains a stunner--when the film screened in the 1978 Director's Fortnight, France Soir ran a picture of her twice the size of Farrah Fawcett). To complaints that Koronel "is too beautiful for the slums," Brocka had the perfect response: "but Koronel is from the slums." Good answer--only she didn't stay; she left and became a star. O'Hara's screenplay was set in Pasay, which makes a difference--the countless bars nightclubs whorehouses guarantee that even a woman as beautiful as Koronel can live relatively unnoticed. Brocka moved the setting to Tondo, near Smoky Mountain, presumably because he wanted the visual impact of the slums--in other words opting for drama over authenticity.

The second more serious flaw: censors refused to accept Insiang's unyielding stance towards her mother, so Brocka shot a coda in Bilibid Prison, where Insiang clumsily reveals her plan of revenge then--unbelievably--asks for forgiveness. It's the only moment in the film that actually descends into bathos; worse, it makes total hash of all that came before, flies in the face of the film's otherwise unflinching sensibilities.)

Insiang is available from The Criterion Collection.

Menzone, October, 2002; partly re-written and expanded on the occasion of Ms. Tagasa's recent passing and Brocka's 79th birthday

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