Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

A Classic of Philippine Cinema

A 1976 Philippine film, Insiang, is regarded by many as a classic example of cinematic mastery. Although it belongs to the melodrama genre, the story is set in a crowded shanty town; violence, poverty, and societal anger mix to create a mentality. Tonia, a resident who works in the marketplace, hosts some of her ex-husband’s family members, who live with her and her daughter Insiang. Tonia, who has a strong physical attraction, gets drawn by her partner’s obsession with completing their relationship and proving his manhood. On the other hand, another young man has great affection for her but is too hesitant to express it.

But Insiang, constantly subjected to her mother’s criticism—which she considers unjustified and unfounded—feeds a growing unhappiness. Dado commits a horrible act of sexual assault against Insiang after being disillusioned with the fleeting pleasure he receives from his relationship with Tonia. Driven by hatred and disgust, Insiang plans to bring about revolutionary change.

When it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978, Insiang propelled its director, Lino Brocka, onto the global stage. Before the historic day, Brocka had started his career as a filmmaker in 1970, specializing in commercially successful genre pictures that included comedies and action-packed films as well as domestic dramas about adultery in marriage.

Building on the critical praise that his last project had received, Brocka took a stab at social criticism the following year with the similarly thought-provoking Insiang. With its sharp focus on a single protagonist and a specific metropolitan’s subtleties location, the film has many more resonant influences than its predecessor. Therefore, it cements its status as a grand milestone in the history of Philippine cinema.

The Film Foundation, led by Martin Scorsese, began a thorough restoration project in 2015 to give the old story fresh vitality, acknowledging its lasting cultural relevance. Besides being considered one of the greatest screenwriters in the Philippines, the screenwriter, Lamberto Antonio, deserves praise for their contribution to the film’s extraordinary storytelling. They imbued the screenplay with poignancy and poetic depth.

Lino Brocka and the Second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema

Brocka is one of a group of filmmakers whose passion is to liberate Philippine cinema from the grip of commercialism and soft pornography; he steered it toward artistic innovation, social progressivism, and reflection by creating two historical films as leaders of a rebirth in cinema comparable to the “Golden Age” that followed World War II. Brocka and his peers ushered in what would become known as the “Second Golden Age,” marked by its influence on culture and global reach.

Throughout his remarkable career, which spanned almost sixty feature films, Brocka bravely took on taboo issues like prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community, government corruption, paramilitary atrocities, societal inequities, and the horrors of martial law. Film preservationists and festival curators have pointed out how important it is to recognize the diverse artistic quality in Brocka’s body of work.

Conrado Baltazar’s powerful cinematography and Brocka’s thorough attention to detail combine to create a realistic picture of the film’s environment, where everyday conflicts place a backdrop of desperation and poverty. Brocka depicts the spirit of urban decline with unmatched eloquence, capturing everything from the protected enclave of a tiny convenience shop to the raw intimacy of communal bathing rituals and the pervasiveness of drunkenness.

Originating from a book by Mario O’Hara, who co-wrote the script with Antonio, Insiang has more than one origin. The film opens at a slaughterhouse with gruesome scenes of disemboweled pigs and their blood mixed with water; the sequence has a documentary-like poignancy to it. The story then moves to the filthy surroundings of a slum swarming with kids engaged in play activities next to a river.

As the epitome of purity and virtuousness, Insiang is often interrupted in her attempts to keep her volatile family harmonious by her mother, Tonya, played to perfection by the seasoned actress Mona Lisa. Dado, a young and hard slaughterhouse worker, is introduced to Tonya’s brutal expulsion of his family, with bitterness manifestation over her husband’s abandonment. When things change, Dado starts to feel more in love with Insiang, which sparks a dangerous triangle’s emergence of love that could end badly. With Hilda Coronel’s expressive eyes acting as conduits for her turbulent emotional journey, Baltazar’s photography, marked by its deferential regard towards Insiang, painstakingly captures the intricacies of her transformation—from a cunning ingenue to a dangerous femme fatale.

Capturing Raucous Reality

The film’s cinematic approach emphasizes an instant, unpolished vibe rather than an exacting production. Filmed in just seven days, Brocka preferred a quick edit, often needing only one take per scene. Baltazar’s deft camerawork conveys the tension by using rapid zooms and pans to match the twitchy action. The method creates a close relationship with the small apartment and functions as the film’s principal location.

Brocka’s experience in theater greatly informs his directing decisions. Actors from his theater group, the PETA Kalinangan Ensemble, were regularly cast by him. His main goal is to direct the action with a theatrical sensibility, giving his cast’s strong performances more weight than carefully planned on-screen compositions.

It is impossible to avoid comparing Brocka and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the German director. Despite the characters’ majority having relatively little language, the film features outstanding performances from all actors. Rez Cortez does a great job of capturing Bebot’s adolescent mindset in his character’s portrayal. He longs for closeness with Insiang but lacks the bravery to keep her safe from Dado, showing his fear by staying silent. As Dado, a man who is well aware of his impact on both men and women and quick to take advantage of their weaknesses for personal benefit, Ruel Vernal is fit for the part. But the real star of the show is Lisa as Tonya. Her vocal delivery is a stunning portrayal of a bitter, obsessed evil. She grows to hate her daughter, who serves as a continual reminder of her husband’s desertion. Tonya’s constant ranting and severe manner matched well with the story and location of the film. Notably, she personifies envy, one of the film’s principal themes, whereas Insiang stands for the opposite—revenge.

A World of Brutal Exploitation

Insiang depicts a desolate world in which sexual attraction brutally overrides any semblance of moral bounds. Bebot and Dado, the two guys who take advantage of Insiang’s weakness, try to defend their rapacious behavior by bringing up the worn masculine stereotype, effectively asserting that primal biological cravings drive their actions similar to animalistic impulses. Bebot is Insiang’s heedless mechanic boyfriend; he is frequently shown without a shirt, emphasizing his physicality without any emotional depth or ability to shield Insiang. Conversely, Dado brings to mind Marlon Brando’s legendary performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.

It’s easy to read into a specific fascination with Dado’s character. Given Brocka’s sexuality, he has a physical presence—he’s tall, has a tattoo on his chest, and a mustache. He commands the smaller Bebot. His mocking actions, such as his fingering of Bebot’s earring and questioning of his masculinity, serve to highlight it even more. In the end, though, the story defies expectations. Although both men fulfill their goals, Insiang (first shown as pious and pure) experiences a significant change.

Generally, Insiang‘s compelling force derives from the protagonist’s constant disclosure of hitherto undiscovered aspects of her character. Early in the story, Insiang proclaims her wish to wed the immature and boyish Bebot, which throws us for a loop. After the initial shock, she gets even more of a shock when she comes clean and says she hates her mother. In the film’s first part, Insiang is a young person seeking a way out of a cruel and disgusting world. But there’s a significant shift in the second part.

Visual Storytelling Reflects Insiang’s Transformation

Deliberate changes to the film’s tone and tempo reflect the change in Insiang’s persona. The fast tempo that started quickly slows down; it gives the audience enough time to take in the moments thoroughly. The awkward and protracted sequence in which Bebot tries to find a room at a cheap hotel for intimacy played as an instance. His incompetent attempts come to a head when he makes an awkward appeal to Insiang for money; it highlights his shortcomings. In a similar vein, slow-burning nighttime shots reveal glimpses of Insiang hidden under a mosquito net, bathed in a soft light that suggests her sexuality is emerging along with a hint of distaste.

Insiang uses recurrent stylistic embellishments. Regardless of further muddying the boundaries of realism, several sequences end with an abrupt zoom-in on Insiang’s face. Indeed, it is expressive and fathomless. The method reminds us of the dramatic close-ups seen in low-budget soap operas on television. Further, the short musical motif enhances the impact that is used repeatedly and abruptly ends after each scene. It gets hard to tell if it is due to financial limitations or a purposeful creative decision meant to immerse the audience in a meditative, dreamlike environment.

The film quietly presents Nanding as a third candidate for Insiang’s devotion while she struggles with the unwelcome advances of Bebot and Dado. Nanding is earnest and studious, in contrast to the other two suitors. Still, Insiang doesn’t seem to be aware of his advances.

Rethinking the Narrative

As the voice of reason, Nanding tells Insiang to “leave this place,” a repeated request by several characters in the film. However, Insiang envelops the barrio, entangling its residents and the viewers inside its boundaries.

The film’s stirring conclusion forces audiences to reconsider all that came before it. The tragic conclusion of Insiang leaves room for a different reading of the narrative as a foiled mother-daughter love tale. Tonya and Insiang discover that their intense pride and brewing rage have imprisoned them both. The realization highlights the loneliness each feels despite their physical closeness, adding a sad dimension to their broken connection.

Insiang goes beyond a cursory investigation of the psyche of people. The most memorable aspect of the film is its visceral depiction of desire and the physical world; despite its unquestionably complex and sophisticated psychological underpinnings, the raw friction of skin on skin, the oppressive tropical heat that makes us sweat, the rhythmic dripping of water from a faucet that muffles the sounds of illicit sex, and the constant stench of fish that Tonya tries so hard to cover up before her lover gets there—all of the sensory experiences overwhelm the audience.

Even though Insiang may not be as blatantly political in its commentary as other of Brocka’s subsequent works, the film nevertheless subtly criticizes the urban situation by highlighting the living circumstances the folks face. Brocka offers a potent critique of the societal structure; they are facts that the Marcos government would have wished to keep out of the public eye. Brocka does not, however, present the slum residents as helpless victims.

They possess agency, vitality, and the ability to engage in complex interactions. Depending on the situation, they can be cruel or compassionate. Although Insiang tells a target of her mother’s outburst early on to “just put up with it,” the film eventually dismisses stoicism as a workable solution. Ultimately, Augusto Salvador’s editing technique gives the film a driving beat while preserving an aesthetic that borders on the mainstream and art-house genres, maybe veering slightly toward the latter.

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