Insiang (Hilda Koronel) lives with her domineering mother Tonya (Mona Lisa) who has aged into utter bitterness in the time since her husband, Insiang's father, left them and their Filipino shanty town behind for pastures new, and possibly another woman too. She does her best, but life is a struggle when the men cannot hold down a job, money is tight, and everyone seems just about to break out into an argument at any time, as happens when some of the family who live with the pair grow sick and tired of Tonya's haranguing and leave, making the amount of funds coming into the household even slimmer. But to make matters worse, Tonya has her eye set on the biggest bully in the slum, Dado (Ruel Vernal)...
Writer and director Lino Brocka was hitting his stride when he made Insiang, starring Koronel who was fast becoming one of the Philippines' most respected actresses, with the result that this played in Cannes among other places around the globe. It took his usual subject matter, the poverty-stricken inhabitants of his native country, and elevated their plight to operatic heights, not that there was much singing but as with many developing countries their idea of popular entertainment leaned strongly on melodrama, even when they were purporting to stay realistic in the material, never mind the approach that they settled upon. With this, you were getting big emotions.
Emotions such as anger, which you were invited, nay ordered, to feel when you became invested in the title character's dilemma. Quite often in this form of cinema the acting was perfunctory, or at least less defined than what many who were used to higher budget efforts were prepared to tolerate, but Brocka brought out a couple of fine performances from both his leading ladies, so much so that you could practically hear the crackle of tension in the air when they set to discussing what was on their minds. What that usually was turned out to be Dado, who when he was not romancing Tonya was scaring Insiang's boyfriend Bebot (Rez Cortez) away from her or else face this violent wrath.
Not that Bebot is a great guy himself, as he appears to mostly be with his girlfriend because she is not promiscuous and he senses he can have her all to himself if he treats her well enough, all so that he may get her into bed eventually. Once he has done so, he might not be so interested, not enough to hang around, leading the whole suffering women stuck with deadbeat men plotlines to be connected to the works of Douglas Sirk or Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the minds of those who liked to join the dots among the more notable filmmakers of the world. But Brocka was more of a piece with the impoverished filmmakers who really had to scrape their funds together to amass their budget, worked in reduced conditions to bring their narratives to life, and were closer to their contemporaries in the poorer nation's entertainment industries.
Time and again we were reminded of how a lack of any kind of income to any satisfactory degree can lead to degradation, such as the scene where Insiang is cooking herself a meal and her mother casually walks in and squats down to urinate mere feet away, not bothering to cover herself for privacy; Filipinos may not be too perturbed by this, but it was startling to anyone who needs to lock the toilet door before they can perform their ablutions. But the really worrying part arrived when Dado rapes Insiang, a turning point we should have seen coming and even if you did still shocks - he basically knocks her out as she struggles and carts her off to his bed to violate her - which he then manages to blame on her for seducing him, so if this is operating at any kind of visceral level should be making the viewer very angry indeed. It is here where our heroine opts to play a long game to achieve vengeance, reminiscent of film noir except the fallen woman is worthy of our sympathies as she takes herself to very dark places to do so. Only the ending deflates this slightly, though it is believable in a compelling slice of life in overheated delivery. Music by Minda D. Azarcon.
[This has been released on a BFI Blu-ray/DVD double bill with Manila in the Claws of Light under the title Lino Brocka: Two Films. Those features:
New 4K restorations of both films
Manila... A Filipino Film (Mike de Leon, 1975, 33 mins): fascinating making-of documentary featuring interviews and behind-the-scenes footage
Manila stills and collections gallery
Visions Cinema: Film in the Philippines (Ron Orders, 1983, 40 mins): Tony Rayns interviews Lino Brocka and other prominent Filipino directors.
Signed: Lino Brocka (Christian Blackwood, 1987, 84 mins): award-winning, feature-length documentary exploring the director's life and work
The Guardian Lecture: Lino Brocka in conversation with Tony Rayns (1982, 62 mins, audio only)
Illustrated booklet featuring a new essay by Cathy Landicho Clark, an archive interview with Lino Brocka and full film credits.]