Insiang, 1976

To some extent, author and national hero José Rizal’s Spanish colonial-era novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo paved the way for a certain propensity towards melodrama and tortuous, epic narratives that continue to shape and define the aesthetics of Philippine indigenous cinema. So, while there is the temptation to characterize Lino Brocka’s cinema through facile comparison with the works of contemporary filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder through the commonality of incorporated elements of melodrama and kitsch – as well as in the symbolic brutality of the slums that is encapsulated in the opening sequence of Insiang that prefigures a key, metaphoric slaughterhouse sequence in Fassbinder’s subsequent film, In a Year of 13 Moons – there is also a stark divergence in Brocka’s more classical aesthetic of gritty, social realism and subversive politicization that eschews the overt stylization and formalism intrinsic in Fassbinder’s critical, yet introspective cinema. In hindsight, the character introduction establishing sequences of Insiang already articulates Brocka’s overarching theme on the dehumanization of poverty: from the image of the opportunistic Dado (Ruel Vernal) at work at his part-time job eviscerating pigs as a slaughterhouse matadero, to a shot of Dado’s older lover, the carping and miserly Tonya (impeccably played by legendary Filipino cinema character actress Mona Lisa) selling produce at an open market (a metaphoric image on the commodification of human interaction), to the first words spoken by Tonya to her attractive daughter Insiang (Hilda Koronel) at their overcrowded home in the slums of Tondo to run an errand and buy sugar for the household (an implicit commentary on the absence of sweetness in their everyday lives), to Tonya’s scandalous eviction of her sister-in-law (Mely Mallari) who, along with her grown children and extended family, had moved from the province in search of better life and job opportunities in the city of Manila (a familiar illusion of a better life that continues to spur migration from the rural provinces to the overcrowded city of Manila, as seen recently in Ditsi Carolino’s staggeringly intimate documentary, Life on the Tracks), and now find themselves homeless, unemployed, and literally cast out without even the shirts on their back (as Tonya demands that the clothes that she had given to the toddlers as gifts be returned) in order to make room for Dado. Inevitably, when Dado, in turn, sets his sights on the visibly indifferent Insiang, both mother and daughter become locked in a vicious, consuming, and emotional power struggle for their very survival. Inevitably, inasmuch as the title implies character identification and individuality, Brocka’s harrowing, indelible, and unsentimental canvas is, instead, an encompassing sociopolitical national landscape of rootlessness, suppression, and moral bankruptcy that define the nature of endemic poverty. It is this uncompromising spirit that ultimately evokes the specter of Rizal’s seminal novels (and his martyrdom) in Brocka’s inspired film, an impassioned call to revolution and solidarity on the collective psyche of a marginalized and dispossessed people.

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