On July 4, 1776, the United States of America declared independence from the monarchy of Britain (Congress officially voted on July 2, but the official declaration took 48 hours).
On July 4, 1946, the Philippines were granted independence from the United States. The island nation first declared independence 48 years earlier from Spain, but that declaration was ignored by the U.S. government when it received the Asian colony in the 1898 Treaty of Paris. It wasn’t until President Harry S. Truman signed the Philippine Independence Act of 1946 that the American flag was lowered, and only the flag of the Philippines was raised.
What better time to dip into the relatively unknown world of Filipino/Tagalog cinema? The country has seen recent success on the world stage thanks to the works of Lav Diaz and the proliferation of slow cinema, but the tradition of Tagalog cinema is as old as moving pictures. But it wasn’t until the 1970s, and the films of director Lino Brocka, that Tagalog cinema achieved Western acclaim.
For that, we have Pierre Rissient to thank, a tireless soldier of cinema and the man who brought Brocka’s Insiang to the Cannes Film Festival in 1978, a first for a Philippine film. Rissient discovered the film on a trip to Manila in 1977, one year after Brocka completed work on the film. A voracious filmmaker, Brocka was already at work on another film, he would make two in 1977. Brocka directed more than 60 films and TV episodes in his short life of 52 years.
Brocka worked fast and told stories with gritty authenticity, and the first third of Insiang is practically documentary: The inner workings of a slaughterhouse, the village’s primary source of commerce; unemployed men sitting on benches drinking too much and talking too loud; women maintaining shops and fixing the meals with little acknowledgment; and mothers henpecking daughters for not finding a husband with money. Bodies are stacked on top of one another, crammed into homes, hallways, streets, and stores. Food is prepared next to the toilet, and everyone fights for physical space. Just watching it makes the air in your room feel stuffy and hot.
Then the story kicks in—Tonya (Mona Lisa) begins a relationship with Dado (Ruel Vernal), a much younger butcher. But Dado has eyes for Tonya’s adult daughter, Insiang (Hilda Koronel), eventually leaving Tonya’s bed for Insiang’s. He rapes her, falls for her, and Insiang turns his love against her mother. Then Insiang turns her mother against her lover, returning the cruelty heaped upon her in equal measure.
In one aspect, Insiang is good, pulpy fun: A noir-tinged tale of a bitter mother and her vindictive daughter. In another, Insiang is a social commentary on the bottom rungs of poverty. And how those at the base drag each other down. Brocka presents the world of Insiang as one of relentless oppression, from the opening squeals of a pig’s last breath to the film’s sensational final image, visually imprisoning mother and daughter for the rest of their lives. It’s a bit of Ernest Hemingway on Manila Bay: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
The rest are just broken.