Director Lino Brocka (left)
Philippines (95 mi) 1976 d: Lino Brocka
This is a film where the floodgates open, a B-movie melodrama set in the most wrenchingly realist setting in the Manila slums, where sequence after sequence is layered in the squalor of the neighborhood. Stuck in a web of entrapment, seemingly with no escape, the film takes on an ominous and utterly fatalistic tone. Like KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN (1985), this theme of no way out reveals the excruciating hopelessness associated with military dictatorships, as any hope of freedom is squashed under a banner of cruelty that subjects the entire nation to blatant corruption and massive arrests. Any hint of political opposition is quickly censored and shut down, eliminating any other point of view. The years of the Marcos dictatorship took its toll on the Philippines, where this film only begins to describe the inherent Shakespearean drama taking place in family after family, separating and imploding from dire poverty, where there is no support mechanism in place. Instead each was on their own, facing the harsh brutality of daily existence where there’s barely enough food to eat. Living in the slums of a shantytown, narrow streets built around a giant mountain of trash, the waste depository of the city’s middle-class, with impoverished families crowded into one-roomed shacks under corrugated tin roofs, where it looks like an ill wind could simply blow all this away, as it’s literally the garbage pit of the nation. This is the essential setting of the film, where the crude look is reflected throughout, from the opening until the closing frame. Not for the timid or the meek, the blood-splattering opening in a slaughterhouse, where pigs are gutted right before our eyes (amplified by their dying squeals), foreshadows what’s to come, unmistakably symbolizing just how barbaric these conditions really are. The first Filipino film to ever receive an invitation to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, screening in Director’s Fortnight more than a year after the Christmas Day premiere in the Philippines, Lino Brocka is at the forefront of a Philippine New Wave cinema that brings a gritty social realism into the film aesthetic, yet not in the Italian neo-realist tradition, as some may be surprised at the melodramatic overreach exhibited throughout, where the central figure is a teenage girl named Insiang who is played by a beautiful young actress Hilda Koronel. Brocka may have figured that his aspiring actress was ready to win an Academy Award with this gut-wrenching performance (she was not), as if conceived with her in mind, yet she brings a soap sensibility to the role, not really rising above the tawdry material, at times overwhelmed by the desperate circumstances, completely out of her element, the only beauty in a sea of trash and garbage, which might seem out of place, yet Koronel herself came from the slums, but her exquisitely good looks gave her a ticket out, something this character could never find. Living under the acid tongue of her ferocious mother, Tonya (Mona Lisa), a monstrous Iago-like figure who twists morality to suit herself, disregarding the interests of anyone else, she destroys any concept of family, disgracefully driving out the weakest and most vulnerable family members, claiming they are a burden, clearing space for her much younger boyfriend, Dado (Ruel Vernal), an intimidating local thug who works in the slaughterhouse.
Holding nothing back, with children playing in the dirt juxtaposed against old men smoking, there’s a feeling of generational futility, perfectly expressed by Tonya’s volcanic onslaught of anger at everyone. Stung by the bitter resentment of her husband abandoning the family to run off with a younger girl, Tonya continually associates Insiang with his conduct, as she’s a constant reminder of his betrayal, taking it out on everyone around her, with Insiang feeling the brunt of her domineering ways, as her mother never lets her out, continually working her to death at home. While Insiang has a boyfriend, Bebot (Rez Cortez), she rarely gets a chance to see him, and she’s not comfortable with a guy that always wants to put his hands on her, continually fending him off. In this way, Insiang is a stark contrast to her mother, introduced as a Cinderella character, overworked and mistreated at home, with no signs of appreciation, never allowed any independence, yet morally virtuous. All that changes when Tonya brings Dado into the home, just a few years older than Insiang, subject to icy stares from her daughter, ordered to turn the bathwater on every night to drown out the noise of their sexual frolicking, waking up much later with the water overflowing. Sleeping on the floors under mosquito nets, there’s not an ounce of privacy, having to squat over a hole in the floor instead of a toilet, which only contaminates the waters below, providing glaring images of people literally living in their own filth. Being the bully that he is, Dado orders Bebot to stop seeing Insiang, which leaves her isolated even more, infuriated that he’s butting into her affairs. When she confronts him, his physical response is spell-binding, choking her into submission, carrying her off unconscious, finding her in tears the following morning, completely inconsolable, showing signs of extreme grief and trauma, as she was raped. When her mother intervenes, Insiang reveals the truth, which Dado doesn’t deny, but he reframes it by instead blaming Insiang, claiming she prances around the house naked, luring him on by revealing herself (utter fabrications), suggesting what real man wouldn’t be seduced? Instead of believing her daughter, she calls her a tramp, claiming she’s just like her father. Turning the tables against her, Insiang has few options, with the closed-in claustrophobic environment feeling ever more threatening, literally choking the life out of her, feeling more imprisoned than ever, a stark metaphor for an entire nation feeling trapped under the dictatorial rule of Marcos. Turning to Bebot as her last hope, she wants to run away together, pleading with him not to leave her ever again, but they only get as far as a cheap hotel room nearby, with Bebot turning to Insiang for the final few dollars needed for the room, finally capitulating to his wishes, giving herself to him, but by morning he’s vanished, leaving her all alone to fend for herself. This kind of cowardice exhibited by Bebot is typical of young male adolescent behavior, refusing to step up when it’s really needed, bailing at the last minute. This calls into question a theme of masculinity, with Dado and Bebot (and Insiang’s absent father) claiming they are only doing what any man would do, yet they shirk responsibility and strength, hiding behind a mask of fake masculinity, which may as well be a portrait of Marcos.
Shot in just 11 days on a shoestring budget using low production values, released incredibly into theaters just 17 days later, a recurring musical theme featuring a sadly melancholic flute plays throughout, composed by Minda D. Azarcon, sounding more like a heartfelt theme of despair. With little recourse afterwards, her hopes dimmed, Insiang returns home, embarrassed and belittled from her experience, with her mother tightening the screws even more, never letting her out of her sight, resembling the severe restrictions of life under martial law. Almost immediately, Dado sneaks into her bed at night, confessing he was never really interested in Tonya, that his sights were set on her all along, which is the only reason he moved in, promising to love her. Curiously, she allows him to sleep with her, but only on the condition that he exacts revenge against Bebot, seen getting a thorough beating at the garbage dump shortly afterwards, discovering many of his teeth missing. This pattern of sleeping with mother and daughter continues, with the whole neighborhood getting wind of it, becoming a scandal that’s hard to believe, as the morally virtuous Insiang has transformed into something else altogether, becoming an avenging angel, using the power of her sexuality to extract revenge against the people who have done her wrong. It’s only a matter of time before her mother realizes what’s happening, with Insiang furiously raging against her, protecting herself with a hot iron, ready to strike, invoking a stream of anger that had been directed against her all her life, sending her mother a clear and unambiguous message that Dado prefers her, that he can’t stand the sight of Tonya anymore and her “old wrinkled skin.” Clearly fuming at being outfoxed, Tonya flies into a jealous rage, stabbing Dado repeatedly in what resembles an execution while Insiang watches intently, unable to turn away, utterly transfixed by what she sees. Like his earlier film, Manila in the Claws of Neon (Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng liwanag) (1975), Brocka is suggesting there is a clear correlation between dehumanized living conditions and eruptions of violence, as one breeds the other, with crime more rampant in impoverished areas where people are living on the edge of desperation. Shot with a raw sense of cinéma vérité by cinematographer Conrado Baltazar, where the neighborhood itself is an expression of horror, one of Brocka’s techniques throughout the film is to zoom in on Insiang’s face after a particularly disturbing incident, capturing the pain and anguish, as they do in soap operas, going over-the-top in terms of operatic expression, speaking the language of the telenovelas (the film originated as an episode in a dramatic series for Philippine television), something ordinary citizens can relate to and comprehend. The dramatic twists, though, are of Shakespearean proportions, displaying matters of betrayal, lust, humiliation, despair, and revenge, each given precise moments of screen time, where the crimes committed are so egregious that there is no relief or emotional catharsis afterwards. Apparently the government censors found the film too pessimistic, forcing Brocka to tag on a brief coda afterwards, yet true to form, there is no life-altering redemption, where the concept of family has been blown to smithereens, reflective of the inhumane government policies and the gravity of the crimes committed by the Marcos administration, leaving a nation betrayed and riddled with grief, suffering from an inescapable stranglehold of terror.