“It’s your father’s fault.” the heroine of Lino Brocka’s 1976 realist melodrama Insiang is told, neatly hinting at the destructive patriarchy of the Philippines under Marcos. Like the heroine of a fairytale, Insiang (Hilda Koronel) is a radiant source of light amid the darkness of a Manila slum where jobless men drown their sorrows and burden their wives while proving their masculinity by often violent sexual conquest. Soon even she is consumed by the corruption of the world all around her against which she eventually plots her revenge. 

The chief source of Insiang’s misery is her harridan of a mother, Tonya (Mona Lisa), who has become cruel and embittered in the humiliation of her husband’s abandonment. Tonya has agreed to allow some of her husband’s relatives to stay with them as the father has lost his job, but often insults them and her harsh words weigh heavily on Insiang’s cousin Edong who is old enough to work but cannot find find a job. When Edong gets drunk and gropes Insiang’s best friend Ludy (Nina Lorenzo) who runs the local store, Tonya loses her temper and throws them all out even insisting on the return of some clothes she’d bought the children sending them away not even in rags but naked. 

Isiang confesses that she has come to hate her mother and feels no maternal connection with her at all, knowing that her coldness towards her is motivated by resentment towards her estranged father who left them for another woman. Tonya’s decision to throw out the relatives was in part motivated by her desire to move in Dado (Ruel Vernal), a thuggish man much younger than herself who guts pigs at a local slaughter house. In the end, he will be stuck himself just like one of the animals he and men in general are so often likened to. Dado has a tattoo of his own name on his chest and struts his stuff like a proud alpha male, quickly questioning the masculinity of Insiang’s sometime boyfriend Bebot (Rez Cortez) who has a giant perm and wears an earring in one ear. Insiang dislikes going to the cinema with Bebot because he has a tendency to become handsy, justifying his disregard of her discomfort by insisting that he’s a man and cannot help it. Dado later says something similar after raping an unconscious Insiang, telling the incensed Tonya that it’s not his fault because no man could fail to be “seduced” with a such a beautiful woman in the house. 

At heart, the film is a painful melodrama about the frustrated love between mother and daughter which is made impossible because of male failure. When she finds Insiang sobbing and realises Dado has raped her, Tonya tries to comfort her daughter but is soon seduced again on Dado’s return. As Ludy says, Tonya too has her needs even if her relationship with a much younger man scandalises the local community, but in the end she chooses to maintain her connection to male power rather than the emotional connection to the daughter she has come to resent as a constant reminder of her failure as a woman. To escape her impossible situation, Insiang agrees to sleep with Bebot on the condition that he will rescue her in marriage. But Bebot is also a coward who has already been warned off by Dado. He takes her to a hotel but doesn’t even have the money to pay, asking Insiang to chip in the difference. When morning comes Bebot is gone. “No one can help me with my problem but myself” Insiang tells Ludy’s sympathetic younger brother Nanding (Marlon Ramirez) who tells her that he loves her anyway even if the rumours about her unusual family situation are true and is willing to help her escape the futility of the slums as he is already preparing to do through pursuing education. 

But Insiang has already been transformed, only her revenge will buy her her release. She manipulates Dado through her sexuality and motivates her mother’s jealously to engineer the tragic outcome that will free her. But having achieved her vengeance she has only regrets in the continued absence of maternal love, while Tonya too feels much the same. Insiang takes back some of her own cruelty, though what she said was not wholly untrue, but Tonya turns away from her only to regret her inability to embrace her daughter. Trapped behind bars, she can only watch silently as Insiang walks away and does not look back. The two women are forever divided by the patriarchal society. Insiang has won a temporary victory but only in self-destruction. In Brocka’s bleak depiction of Marcos’ Manila, not even maternal love is safe from the ravages of the contemporary society.  

Insiang screened as part of this year’s Red Lotus Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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