One of the many delights of The Criterion Collection’s release of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project is sitting down to watch a neglected film and having no idea where it’s going to go, its inaccessibility having kept its virtues relatively unknown. Certainly when I sat down to watch the film that opens the set, Insiang, from Filipino director Lino Brocka, I had no idea what was coming. Yet from the get-go the experience was special. I started with Martin Scorsese’s brief introduction and then started the show.
Before I was even able to register what was showing up on screen, I was jolted by the loud squeals of a pig being butchered front and center. Brocka is essentially daring us to continue as we watch porcine carcasses going down conveyor belts, taking a dip in some unknown liquid, moving on their way to our table. Meanwhile, the workers causing this mayhem are nonchalant, the blood and gore and squealing a regular part of their day. From this gruesome beginning, Insiang unsettled to its surprising conclusion, after which I started it over. It was time for the pigs to squeal again.
Once we leave the slaughterhouse, Brocka takes us to the narrow, busy, dirty streets of the Manila slums. It’s hardly more welcoming than the slaughterhouse, filled with a different kind of violence, filth, and hot bodies. Brocka zooms in on one particular household. There we meet Insiang, the beautiful object of desire, played by Hilda Koronel, who had played the role before in Brocka’s television production of the story. Insiang stands out in this community, though she has to go out there, carrying burdens back and forth, trying to avoid getting assaulted by the drunk men. At home she tries to avoid being under the finger of her mother, Tonya, played by the fantastic Mona Lisa.
In some part of her heart, Tonya may care for Insiang — affection or concern comes out at poignant moments — but Insiang is also a memento of Tonya’s failures. Abandoned by Insiang’s father, working her fingers to the bone each day, Tonya doesn’t particularly want Insiang to enjoy life any more than she has been able to.
Meanwhile, the alpha male in the community, Dado, played by Ruel Vernal, whom we met when he was an anonymous worker in the slaughterhouse, has become Tonya’s lover and has moved into the home she and Isiang share.
The home is already small and hot, the corners dark and uninviting, and now one of the most brutal men in the slums has come to stay.
I don’t want to simply keep going through the plot here, because though the plot is compelling the film’s major strength is its penetrating look at what’s going on below the surface for these three central characters. Insiang is willing to wed her lusty, weak, unimpressive boyfriend, Bebot (Rez Cortez, perfectly putting on a façade of strength) perhaps because his vulnerability appeals to her more as a direct contrast to the men with the vitality of Dado. Bebot, though, mostly just feels lust for Insiang, still feels like he deserves her body, and he’s not capable of helping her out of the awful situation at home. For her part, Tonya is absolutely thrilled that at her age she’s scored the hunky Dado, even if he is dangerous and her role more pathetic than enviable. And Dado, for his part, has other desires: he also lusts for Insiang, and, it seems, he really hopes he can make her happy.
Because of Brocka’s masterful characterization and the all around great acting, these characters do not come off as mere stereotypes in a domestic drama. Tonya, Dado, and Bebot are each capable of surprising us as we feel a degree of compassion for them, even alongside the disgust. And, perhaps most surprising of all, Insiang is capable of making our jaws drop with horror.
Brocka ends his film on a perfect note of ambiguity, as discussed in the great interview with film historian Pierre Rissient, who helped escort Insiang to Cannes. As I said above, it’s an ending that made me start the film over immediately, just to take in all of the richness of character. I wasn’t quite ready to let Insiang and her mother out of my life, just as they themselves may not be able to get rid of each other. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a while, and I’m thrilled Criterion opened this set with such a dark and provocative surprise.