Thursday, May 27, 2021

Insiang (Chris Millado, 2002, stage adaptation)

comes home

Insiang is arguably Lino Brocka's masterpiece, an intimate three-character chamber drama (Tonya (Mona Lisa); her lover Dado (Ruel Vernal); her daughter Insiang (Hilda Koronel)) that slips under the skin like a hunting knife, slicing away fatty illusion and crusted complacency. It's a vision of the Tondo community, of little plywood shanties jammed together and trembling under the shadow of a mountain of garbage.

The film was Brocka's first to be shown internationally, was the first Filipino film to go to the Cannes Film Festival, to be screened at the prestigious Director's Fortnight. Audiences and critics alike sat up and took notice when Brocka made Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang" (You Were Weighed and Found Wanting, 1974); they applauded Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon) in 1975. Insiang confirmed what Filipinos already knew--that Brocka was not just one of the best filmmakers in the country but in the world.

What few remember or even realize was that before Insiang was a film it was a script by Mario O'Hara, written for an episode of the drama series Hilda, in 1973. A few years later Brocka was pitching projects to neophyte producer Ruby Tiong Tan (one of his proposals: an adaptation of Agapito Joaquin's one-act play Bubungang Lata (Tin Roof), which O'Hara turned into a film in 1998); Ms. Tan agreed to Insiang. O'Hara wasn't available to adapt his teleplay (he was directing his second feature, the epic Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976)), so Lamberto Antonio stepped up instead (according to O'Hara there are few changes). The film was shot on location in fourteen days, on a budget of P600,000 (roughly three million today).

It's now 2002, and Tanghalang Pilipino has chosen for its 16th season to adapt Insiang on the theater stage; the question on everyone's mind--certainly on mine--is "Why?" The film is arguably the definitive example of Filipino social-realism--why remake a near-perfect work? In terms of structure, of sustained dramatic tension, of economy of means achieving maximum effect, the film stands above almost any other Filipino films (only one other approaches its elegance and intensity I think--Mike de Leon's Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1982)).

The difference between film and play is apparent from the slaughterhouse start, with Dado's knife plunging into a pig's throat. It's Brocka's idea of hell on earth, of violence institutionalized mechanized running at full capacity; this (Brocka tells us) is Tondo, nor are we out of it.

The play opens on the slum where the story takes place; instead of Brocka's offal stink, we smell--detergent soap? Director Chris Millado in an interview talks of O'Hara telling him that slum dwellers are not automatically prostitutes or drug addicts or thieves; that they make every effort to keep themselves and their surroundings clean; that some actually go to college or hold white-collar jobs; that a rough sort of law and order prevails. If this is hell, it's not a hell comprehensible through first impressions, a hell where the truth is as immediately apparent as in Brocka's film.

The play partly answers an old criticism of the film: back when it screened at Cannes, someone observed that Koronel (who plays Insiang) was too beautiful to have come from the slum; Brocka replied "but she is from the slums." Good answer, but no one pointed out that Koronel didn't stay there; she left and became a star. A woman like Koronel would have been noticed, would have become a slum lord's mistress, would rise up the social ladder. The slums of Pasay, where O'Hara had originally set the film, are full of prostitutes, bargirls, transvestites; girls, even girls as beautiful as Koronel, are a dime a dozen. Brocka set the film in Tondo's slums and nearby Smoky Mountain because he wanted the contrast of Koronel's beauty against Tondo's squalor.

Which may also indicate a difference between Brocka and O'Hara: Brocka didn't seem to mind a good effect at the cost of some distortion; for O'Hara the truth's the truth, plain and simple.

Strange talking about simple truth when the play itself isn't. Brocka presented the story in straightforward terms; O'Hara goes off into fanciful tangents. After changing the mother's name from Tonya to Pacing (possibly to avoid confusion), he introduces a new character Toyang (the hilarious Mae Paner), who functions much like The Common Man in Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons. Yes that old chestnut, the narrator who comments on and acts as comic relief--but O'Hara does pull off one particularly neat joke: Toyang is considered crazy because she talks to no one in particular. "Who" she asks indignantly "are they calling crazy?" Looking at us her audience she spreads her arms out wide. "I've got all of you listening to me!"

It's a conceit worthy of Philip K. Dick: to everyone, Toyang is a lunatic; to herself (and us) she makes perfect sense. "Quiet!" she shrieks, and all fall silent as she explains the use of music in radio as transitional device; "Stop!" she commands and the world pauses while she points out that the chord just heard is popular in radio, used for dramatic moments. A distancing device, yes; also a chance to display O'Hara's broad knowledge of radio--of the medium where he began performing some thirty years ago, and for which he feels too much affection to abandon entirely. Eventually you realize that Toyang's asides also serve to show us that Insiang itself is not much different from a radio soap--one playing out among the very same squatters who sit and listen to the stuff all day.

Insiang sets out to be truthful and--with narrator n pauses n flashbacks n all--largely succeeds, I think. When Toyang asks if Insiang is a virgin, Insiang freezes mid-speech. "Look at that face," Toyang tells us. "Clear, unworried, the face of a child without secrets; the one innocent in this corrupt community." Later Toyang asks Dado why he came to Manila; he replies that he got a girl pregnant. Dado freezes as Toyang examines his face: "wrinkled, as if he had to think before giving an answer. The face of a man with something to hide." After the rape, Toyang looks at Insiang's face again; the difference is telling. "She doesn't blink; her eyes look straight ahead. This face frightens me." A magnifying glass distorts light to allow closer inspection of images; Insiang the playdistends time, to allow us to inspect characters already made familiar by the film.

When Ruel Vernal played Dado on film, Brocka was mainly typecasting; Vernal has played many a goon and rapist (the director did allow Vernal's Dado a measure of cunning, manipulating Tonya into siding with him against Insiang). Ricky Davao's Dado has risen in the world; from mere butcher in a slaughterhouse he has been promoted to righthand man of the Baranggay Captain and bodyguard to the mayor himself (with the standard-issue plastic vest and handgun to prove it too). Davao's Dado isn't as cunning as Vernal's; he is, however, more charming--Insiang is half-seduced by Dado before she's raped.

Mona Lisa played the mother as a Medusa with talons and imperious brow; her Tonya was abandoned by Insiang's father, and she takes out her anger on his daughter. Malou de Guzman's Pacing is younger, softer, easier to hurt. You can believe a woman like her can attract hungry Dado; you can also believe she would turn on Insiang, given a choice between the two. She doesn't need Insiang crying out for help, not when she has a good man with good prospects who is also good in bed; might have been better, she whispers to her most private most innermost self, if she never had a child at all.

What's perfect about Sheenly Vee Gener as Insiang is her freshness; she looks as young as the character is supposed to be--a just-opened blossom, you think, before the sun starts to shrivel her. What's startling about Gener is that she keeps her innocence even after the rape--she looks unchanged save her eyes have acquired a numbed unblinking quality (she recalls those youths who denounce their parents during the Cultural Revolution).

Finally (those who haven't seen film or play may want to skip this paragraph), there's the conclusion. Lino Brocka's Insiang is a response to the great themes of Philippine cinema: the love of mother and survival of the family. The film strikes at these themes, shows them to be illusory--a foolhardy thing to do, considering how dearly we Filipinos love mother and family. The impact of the film's climax comes from Insiang's vicious verbal assault on her mother; the girl is evil--seeing that evil expressed by Koronel's lovely face, knowing how innocent her character is (or used to be) only adds to the shock. Visiting Tonya in prison, Insiang confesses to lying,  as part of a plan to revenge herself on Dado, and she begs for her mother's forgiveness (Brocka explained in an interview that the scene was forced on him by the censors, who couldn't believe a daughter can hate her mother so). O'Hara takes the film's final monologue and by simply changing the tone of Insiang's voice and cutting out her plea for forgiveness delivers a final jolt: Insiang confessing all to Pacing in a moment of triumph not repentance. Rather than extend to her mother any hope of conciliation, Insiang offers complete and utter contempt.

O'Hara in adapting for the stage has deconstructed the story, tracing its roots in radio melodrama; demonstrated the power of melodrama when the story isn't compromised (is based on truth and nothing but); shown us how melodrama transcended can take on the form of true drama--true tragedy. O'Hara after twenty years has stepped up and taken the story of Insiang--his most famous and possibly finest collaboration with Brocka--and claimed it as his own.

First published in Businessworld 8.23.02

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