Lino Brocka’s “Insiang” – 2006 New York Film Festival Review

“Insiang,” released in 1976, was the first Filipino film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival. One of the finest works by the late Lino Brocka – generally considered the Philippines’ greatest filmmaker – is also a major highlight of this year’s New York Film Festival.

Despite considerable censorship from the government in the Philippines that forced Brocka to re-shoot the ending, “Insiang” remains a stinging indictment of the squalor and desperate conditions suffered by the poor during the martial law era of Ferdinand Marcos’ regime. The film opens with graphic footage of pigs being gutted in a slaughterhouse, a potent metaphor for the cheapness and brutality of life in the squalid slum areas of the film’s setting. Brocka creates a tactile sense of the oppressive claustrophobia of the environment: flimsy shacks housing multiple families, huge piles of garbage on the road, complete lack of privacy and every action an object of gossip.

“Insiang” focuses on the title character (Hilda Koronel), who lives with her mother Tonya (Mona Lisa) and does others’ laundry for a living. She has long been abandoned by her father, and her mother has taken up with local gangster Dado (Ruel Vernal). Her dissolute brother spends most of his days drinking with his friends outside the town’s general store, harassing female passersby. At one point in the film, Insiang’s brother asks, “Will it always be like this, always desperate?” The other characters could also ask this question. Insiang dreams of escape as she unsuccessfully fights off Dado’s advances. This exacerbates a rivalry between mother and daughter that reaches Shakespearean proportions.

Brocka works in a mode that I would term “melodramatic neorealism.” The intensity of his film is enhanced by the dramatic concision of his scenario, as the noose of the characters’ circumscribed existence inexorably tightens around them.