Insiang March 11, 2022
1 Hr., 35 Mins.
nsiang (1976), widely considered Filipino filmmaker Lino Brocka’s magnum opus, opens with a pig getting its throat cut. We’re inside a slaughterhouse; the cameras capture the business-as-usual brutality of the assembly line with the unflinching remove of surveillance footage. It’s hard to sit through, yet the matter-of-fact awfulness feels, if not right for a movie as frequently merciless as this one, like an alternative
form of a disclaimer that what’s to come is not for the faint of heart.
The movie, set in a Tondo shanty town, follows its title character (a poignant Hilda Koronel), a young laundrywoman living in a tight, ramshackle flat with her hard-hearted mother, Tonya (Mona Lisa), and several relatives of her father, who recently left the family for a younger woman. Life is joyless, though Insiang can’t help but feel pangs of hope when thinking of Bebot (Rez Cortez), her car-mechanic boyfriend. She hopes they’ll elope soon so she can start a new life — preferably one away from this neighborhood where jobs are so difficult to come by that even attaining ones of the shittily-paying, backbreaking kind is like uncovering pearls.
Things get markedly worse, though, when Tonya impulsively kicks out her estranged husband’s relatives after one of them drunkenly gropes a nearby corner store owner’s daughter. Relations between Tonya and Insiang are already strained: the latter reminds the former of the husband she despises, so hardly a word is tossed in Insiang’s direction that isn’t underscored by hurtful passive aggression. Time alone together only compounds that baseless bitterness. Tonya’s hostility lets up slightly after her much-younger boyfriend, a handsome bully named Dado (Ruel Vernal), moves in: he calls Tonya out whenever she’s being unnecessarily mean-spirited, which is to say near-constantly.
But no optimism ever lasts in this movie. Not long after Dado has officially become man of the house, he rapes Insiang, and soon after threatens Bebot from seeing her under the guise of protecting her “best interests.” When Insiang tearfully explains what has happened, Tonya is supportive. But she’s so quick to believe her boyfriend’s falsified version of the narrative to follow that she’s just as soon going back to antagonizing her daughter. Insiang’s disillusionment with her reality — worsened even more by how town gossip paints her as a seductress rather than a victim — becomes so fevered that, unsure what else to do in a position so powerless, she moves toward revenge.
Despite so often being grouped in with them, Insiang has little in common with the other “rape-revenge” movies of the 1970s, from They Call Her One Eye
(1973) to I Spit on Your Grave (1978), where a violated heroine “settles a score” by viciously killing her attackers with pulpy aplomb. Insiang’s plotting involves more understated scheming. And its psychological treachery, paired with the more-alluded-to-than-seen sexual violence and deceptions inextricable from the narrative, may put you in mind of a 1950s melodrama more than something like, say, Lady Snowblood (1973).
Though unlike a ‘50s melodrama, nothing about Brocka’s movie ever feels coated in artifice. Insiang’s shattered hopes, and the way vengeance is never framed as emotionally satisfying, are portrayed with sensitivity and nuance. And the detailed positioning of the shantytown in which the action takes place establishes it as another character, persuasively communicating what Brocka had been aiming for when he made the movie: making something that grappled with the loss of human dignity and how it can be affected by one’s physical and social environment.
Insiang was critically well-received in its home country, and eventually became the first Filipino movie screened at Cannes. But its commercial prospects were damaged by President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, who pursued censorship and an outright halting of the film’s release because of its less-than-flattering depiction of lower-class life under their regime. The movie was allowed into theaters after some protest. But it nonetheless languished afterward as an obscured masterpiece that bankrupted Brocka’s production company. It only attained prominence again after Martin Scorsese headed a remastering in 2015 that led to positive critical reexamination. Insiang is a difficult watch, but a worthwhile one — a first-rate melodrama whose realist presentation and portrayals of sexual trauma, poverty, and parental emotional abuse empathetically avoid the sensationalism they oftentimes get in the movies for something more considered and complex. A