The opening scene of Insiang, Lino Brocka’s greatest treatment of the women of the slums, shoves us rudely into hell. We land in a dark, steamy abattoir where a line of pigs moves by conveyor belt through progressively gruesome stations of punishment. The hapless victims receive a forceful stab-and-slit from Dado (Ruel Vernal), the matadero. The carcasses are then dipped in a vat of boiling water before being dumped on the depilatory apparatus. Merging with the roar of the slaughtering machines in an infernal chorus, the squeals of the doomed animals are disproportionately loud and persist uncannily beyond their deaths.
This sequence seemingly foreshadows the fate of Brocka’s waifish heroine, Insiang (Hilda Koronel), at the hands of Dado, her mother’s lover. As the film progresses, it isn’t hard to see that the plight of the pigs evokes not just the lot of one woman but the fate of her family and, indeed, of her slum-dwelling people. Too vulgar to qualify as allegory, this analogy aspires instead to exhaust the signifying powers of hyperbole. It suggests that even melodrama in extremis fails to meet the demands of conjuring Third World horrors.
This calculated mimetic failure can be found in Brocka’s best work, from the absolute destruction of a country bumpkin in the concrete jungle of Manila: In the Claws of Neon (75) to the discreet moment of cannibalism signaling the chaos of Corazon Aquino’s rule in Fight for Us (89). Insiang’s slum dwellers have neither heart nor hope. They are more fundamentally dispossessed than their counterparts in film melodramas from other “underdeveloped” nations. Without any redeeming qualities—except perhaps for an instinctive will to live—the members of Insiang’s household turn out to be as rotten as the trash on Smoky Mountain, the monumental garbage heap that looms over them throughout.
Such an unforgiving vision of urban poverty justifies the excesses in this domestic drama. The crudeness of the opening bloodbath is immediately followed by images of spectacular clutter, from the interminable horizon of shanties to the crowded mass of bodies and mosquito nets inside the protagonists’ home. The acute claustrophobia induced by these images is matched by the soundtrack, with its screeching score and maddening cacophony of ambient noise, bile-fueled gossip, and hateful words. A similar overabundance of characters—and snippets of their miserable biographies—crowd the narrative, pulling our attention away from the family romance at the center of it all.
The coercive force of such excess magnifies our repulsion from the slum and its dwellers. Most disturbingly, we breathe a sigh of relief when the extended family squatting in the living room of the protagonists is evicted at the start of the film. We may even chuckle when, in a bitchy gesture, the matriarch Tonia (Thirties star Mona Lisa, in a casting coup) demands the return of a gift once given to one of children being expelled. (The toddler is forced to disrobe in public as she and her kin are driven into the streets.) Our vicarious complicity in this episode primes us to accept whatever the characters may do to relieve the travails of slum life—and so we continue to sympathize with Tonia for turning out her relatives even after we discover that her motive is to make room for her lover. From the moral position that Brocka has carved out for us, Dado’s desire for Insiang is perfectly understandable. She is, after all, a radiant vision in Tondo, Manila’s worst slum. Like Dado, who secretly leers at her from the window of a motorcycle cab, Brocka’s lurching zoom picks her out amidst the human squalor and garbage that litter the camera’s field of vision. In this way Brocka aligns the viewer’s gaze with that of every man in the film who covets her, including those of the gentle Narding (Marlon Ramirez), the storekeeper’s brother, and the sleazy Bebot (Rez Cortez), her suitor.
Given Insiang’s status as prey, even her inevitable rape by Dado fails to deplete our tenuous empathy for her attacker. His sexual aggression is, after all, not just his own premeditated act but also an effect of culture (the pernicious, compensatory machismo of indigent men) and of the physical environment (the hazards of living in a one-room house, where bodies lie close together and hide no secrets). Insiang’s victimization is similarly minimized in the consensual sex that almost immediately follows her rape, as she gives herself to Bebot to consummate their elopement. When she wakes up abandoned in the dingy Chinatown motel room, part of our outrage circles uncomfortably around her folly and masochism.
By the time Insiang has the epiphany that she must turn aggressor in order to survive, we come to see deceit and murderous vengeance as smart options for the perpetual victim. We stay with her even as she turns into something of a monster—that is, something like her mother. Despite her disdain for Tonia’s promiscuity and vindictiveness, she ends up surpassing her mother in both areas. This is signaled by a striking image of imminent—and uncontrollable—sexual danger. Images of water overflowing from a steel drum and an unattended faucet are juxtaposed with shots of Insiang sleeping inside the fragile cocoon of her mosquito net. Because her sexuality is, paradoxically, both the overflowing water and the hapless waif about to drown in it, she must find a way to channel her libido to serve her ends. With the full knowledge of its dangers, she wrests control of her sexuality and sets out to seek redress for all the wrongs inflicted upon her, rejecting the instant salvation offered by her secret admirer, Narding, who proposes marriage—something which ultimately means nothing to a young woman who has already disavowed the patriarchy.
In Brocka’s film, the destructive mother-daughter relationship is anomalous even by the standards of the maternal melodrama. Typically, in Hollywood and European interpretations, maternal melodrama sees at least one of the women walking away with some measure of happiness. The hostility between Tonia and Insiang drew the ire of Marcos-era censors, who rejected a scenario that ends with the daughter gloating over her revenge and expressing absolute hatred of her mother. Brocka conceded by filming a reconciliation attempt but punctuated it with a chilling recourse to silence. Tonia denies Insiang her forgiveness. Given that she has already alienated her extended family, Tonia now loses her only possible visitor in Insiang, opting not to exploit her daughter’s guilt. Insiang, on the other hand, quickly realizes that she does not really want or need her mother’s absolution. This last point is telegraphed by nothing more than a perfectly calibrated change in Koronel’s facial expression. After wiping away her tears, she goes into complete emotional withdrawal. In the film’s final image, she has become little more than a ghostly presence.
There is no edifying lesson at the end of this brave film because Insiang is, as Brocka described it, an “immorality tale.” As the characters begin to recognize their fundamental hopelessness, they turn to destructive acts that carve out their niches in hell. Without the standard redemption narrative, the plot follows a different trajectory. It begins with grand histrionics and ends in total silence. This reversal of melodramatic build-up forces the film to meander in the middle, exploring peripheral characters and constructing an elaborate cosmology of the slums before resuming its course toward the violent climax foreshadowed at the start.
The first Filipino picture to show at Cannes, Insiang enjoyed a warm reception, and Positif’s Alain Garsault wrote a three-page review that attempted to preempt the dismissal of the film as exotica or art naïf by expounding on the film’s leitmotifs, noting the director’s skillful appropriation of melodrama and Greek tragedy. Brocka’s work continued to be well received by French cinéphiles in the years that followed but in the U.S. had no such luck. Only with Macho Dancer (88) did he find a sizeable American audience. Even then the appraisal of his artistry continued to be marred by two persistent factors: a curious disdain among American critics for his melodramatic predilections; and the faulty (and contradictory) premise that his work aspires toward either neorealism or cinéma vérité. Insiang demonstrates that Brocka’s handling of melodrama is nothing short of virtuoso and that the trappings of documentary, neorealism, and Third World exotica only obscure more fundamental affinities to the Hollywood pictures that Brocka saw as a youth in the former American colony and regarded as a formative influence on his cinematic sensibility.