Probably most famous for being the first Filipino film to be shown at Cannes, Insiang is frequently pitched as a revenge tale, sort of in the sordid realm of an I Spit on Your Grave. Fortunately (or unfortunately for you B-schlockers), it’s really anything but.
On the surface, Insiang is jerky, abrupt and low production value. The score cuts harshly in and out, and the edits jump, though this could be the effect of a poor transfer. But lying underneath one of director Lino Brocka’s early features is a heartfelt story not far from the aesthetics and hard-scrap sentiment of a Satyajit Ray film.
The titular character is played by Hilda Koronel. She’s young and beautiful. Living in the slums of Manila with her verbally abusive mother Tonya (the enviously named Mona Lisa) and her mother’s brutish, sexual boyfriend Dado (Ruel Vernal), Insiang longs for some kind of escape, possibly in the form of her cherubish, perfectly cast boyfriend Bebot (Rez Cortez). The problem? Dado lusts for Insiang and everyone’s afraid of Dado.
While the location shooting is certainly remarkable, it would be a mistake to write this off as a successful film simply because of its showcasing of a culture-less-seen on the big screen and for no other reason. Brocka successfully composes many of his frames in a “triangle composition” not unlike that so successful in Kurosawa’s Rashomon. And the tension from that same film is apparent here, though Brocka replaces the myth-making and truth-finding, with sweaty lasciviousness and inescapability.
Check out these stills. The first one here clearly places Insiang in the foreground with her mother and Dado behind her. The framing – very central and crowded here – not only encloses the space, but also adds a conspiratorial air.
Here we see Tonya and Dado looming over Insiang in the type of framing that is classically used to indicate simple power and control. As one might expect from a revenge plot, the power frequently changes hand. And so does the framing.
Here Insiang attempts to escape – or at least lure – Bebot away with her. This is the two of them renting a motel room. We can see that Insiang is frame center, but her body position pulls any power away from her. The camera is also low, looking up at them, perhaps in hope, but it’s Bebot’s hope (his favorable position) that dominates, and not Insiang’s.
The opening of the film is one not easily forgotten. Set up as a metaphor, we find Dado in a slaughterhouse. The first shot is a close-up of a pig being stabbed, and, with the screeching of animals and machinery making up the soundtrack. We are treated to a several minute sequence of brutality in the slaughterhouse.
It’s an introduction that is beyond effective, performing the tri-fold task of introducing us to the brutality of the antagonist, the searing world we are about to be thrust into, and the helplessness of those lower on the food chain.
Brocka does, as noted in the triangular composition examples above, keep his space fairly tight throughout, but by the end, in the only real unfortunate moment in the film – an unnecessary bit of exposition and melodrama – Insiang’s world finally opens up for her. As she walks off – confidently towards, and not away from camera – over the “The End” type, we get the feeling that the world finally offers her possibilities and that we are eons away from the horrifying factory of the beginning.
It’s also worth noting Insiang’s status as female protagonist. Concurrent with the more widely known female Blaxploitation stars of American cinema in the 1970s, Insiang was also using her sexuality as means to an end. Unlike many of those American films, Insiang’s usage is not exploitive (much of the sex is offscreen and there’s no nudity to speak of) and her goals of revenge are purely – if selfishly – motivated.