Can I get an awful confession out of the way – namely, that I’ve never been the greatest fan of Lino Brocka? That I find his films, as socially incisive and powerful as they are – and admittedly I’ve seen only a little more than a handful – to be, at times, painfully predictable and tendentious, with all the subtlety of a bullhorn? (Like Oggs Cruz, I like Ishmael Bernal more – perhaps a lot more.)
And yet. Brocka is responsible for some of the most indelible, haunting images of Philippine cinema, as well as forming the backbone for its second Golden Age. The way his political commitment informs his films has influenced most every serious Filipino filmmaker during and after him, including current favorites of the festival circuit like Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza. But I find that Brocka’s generosity of spirit is at times matched by an equally parsimonious trust in the viewing audience to parse things out for themselves without heavy-handed symbolism to guide the way.
Take, for instance, his grittily eloquent classic from 1975, Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon) – a powerful film, with brilliant acting on the part of Bembol Roco in his acting debut as a wide-eyed naïf from the provinces.* But despite Brocka’s fidelity to social realism, innocence and corruption are so starkly delineated, and there is little moral ambiguity or depth in his characters, even in their names. (I haven’t seen it since 1991 – and I’ll get to see it again today at the mini Brocka retrospective at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival – so my memory is a little hazy, but you might want to brace yourself for how stunningly Sinophobic it is. Okay, that part’s from Edgardo Reyes’ novel, but still…)
One of Brocka’s other acknowledged masterpieces, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Have Been Weighed but Found Wanting) from 1974, arguably inaugurates that same simplistic template of moral clarity. (The “official” English translation — “Weighed but Found Wanting” — loses a bit of that stentorian polysyllabic weight in the title. “Ka” means “you”, and so the English title also lacks the accusatory force of the Tagalog original.) While Tinimbang is painted across a wide cinematic canvas, a cross-section of the people of a small provincial city, we observe many of the events through the eyes of Christopher de Leon, in, um, his acting debut as a wide-eyed naïf from the provinces. Though not quite so naïve: Junior may be burgis, and therefore already tainted by his class background, but by his hesitations (and not necessarily actions) we know he has a good heart.
The film is also about the love, or something like it, between Kuala the village madwoman and Berto the wise leper, and their life in a hut by the side of a cemetery. Did I mention they have a dog named Lupa, which means “soil”, or “earth”? Even by Italian neorealist standards, this hamfistedness probably wouldn’t have flown; it’s tempting to see Tinimbang as a parable, but everything else is so transparently laid out for the viewer. Yes, we got it the first time.
The madwoman and the leper are, of course, the only purely decent human beings in the entire town. The town bullies and drunkards – of which there is no shortage in the film — routinely humiliate both. While the town in general represents society’s indifference to these outcasts, villainy itself is shrilly personified by Junior’s bickering parents; we know this because their house is perfectly hideous, for one, and the father is played by Eddie Garcia — as always, perfectly cast as the flamboyant, womanizing villain — but they’re ultimately caricatures with little depth.
More interesting is Brocka’s depiction of a Catholic women’s association and their infernal sewing circle – ostensibly representing a space safe from the brutal world of men (more on this later), but one no less free from bloodletting, through the symbolic violence of gossip and the women’s unilateral exercise of a stifling morality. (They actually provide some of the few scenes in the film that aren’t quite grim and humorless: there’s a sequence where the Crimson Christian Ladies pose to have their photographs taken with the deceased, and, later, a montage that features close-ups of badly-capped teeth. It’s crude, but it works.)
Brocka masterfully creates these distinctions between women and men throughout, particularly in a series of small, precisely choreographed scenes during a wake, focusing on the division of male and female spaces and the labor associated with them (food preparation on one side, smoking and drinking in the other, a poster of Ferdinand Marcos smiling benevolently from the wall, as if to give his silent approval). There are even parallel scenes of public urination; it’s crude, but it works. (Note to American audiences potentially puzzled by this: the English word “jingle” is Philippine slang for the act of peeing – thus the seemingly incongruous group singing of “Jingle Bells” in a crucial scene in the film.)
Brocka’s protagonists are not necessarily innocents – when Berto first interacts with Kuala there’s a genuinely queasy undercurrent to the scene – but they are sanctified and redeemed by their subsequent abasement. And one can see this constant narrative of suffering that seems to run through much of Philippine dramatic cinema, sourced straight from Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” via his unforgettable madwoman character Sisa. (Those of you familiar with Rey Ileto’s “Pasyon and Revolution” may be tempted to trace the narrative’s genealogy further.)
Indeed, if it isn’t at all clear to the audience yet how they’re supposed to think, there’s a sermon twenty minutes in that just about sums up the entire movie, just in case (“Judge not, lest ye be judged.”) “The heart cannot be seen with the eye,” says Berto, as he instructs Junior “not to judge what is different”. Disney movies don’t even spell out their lessons like this. In Brocka’s defense, one might argue that it’s the cinematic equivalent of writing in ALL CAPS amid the din and terror of Martial Law, that his didacticism was a way of heightening the contradictions. Whether you want to read any Marxist-style tactics into this is up to you.
The title of the film is from the Book of Daniel – “Mene mene, tekel upharsin,” the Aramaic words written on the palace wall of King Belshazzar of Babylon. It’s an accusation from the hand of God – that your kingdom’s days are numbered – but it functions as Brocka’s cinematic condemnation as well: of the film’s audience, of the townspeople assembled at the inexorable tragedy of the conclusion, with Kuala rendered saintly and transcendent by her suffering. Teacher, mayor, housewife, policeman, doctor, drunkard, student – they’re all here, indicted by the moving finger. Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang is great art, yes, but it’s also art that needlessly beseeches, and that, in the end, perhaps diminishes its greatness.
Brocka’s flawed masterpiece Insiang (1976) is no less cutting in its political critique, but that isn’t the main thrust of this film that in my opinion is closer to noir potboiler than Sirkian melodrama; instead, it’s folded into the narrative in more interesting and subtle ways. It does take place in the slums of Manila, yes, and the first gratuitous image the audience sees is that of a pig strung upside down and gutted, followed by overly familiar shots of grinding urban poverty: half-naked children, people scavenging through trash, and so on.
Brocka loops the sound of squealing pigs for maximum deafening effect in the abattoir credit sequence – a too-obvious metaphor, yes, but not one beaten to death; unlike Tinimbang, the film moves on quickly to the grubby drama at hand. Indeed, one signal difference from the earlier films mentioned is that our protagonists aren’t inherently virtuous because of their poverty; they scheme, they seduce, they envy. They’re all too human.
The institutions that Brocka singles out for condemnation in Tinimbang and Maynila are merely gestured at here. A church and a factory appear discreetly in the far background, but their emissaries are absent. These institutions’ presences are merely registered; they loom silent and uncaring over the teeming hell below and its denizens. In contrast to the rural widescreen panorama of Tinimbang, Insiang is almost like a chamber piece, a melodrama distilled to its essence, compressed and tightened in much the same way economic privations bear down brutally on the family at the center of the film, the way poverty squeezes and constrains.
One might argue this sense of compression and narrowness is reflected in the mise-en-scene (did I use that right?) itself. There’s a scene early in the movie when Tonia explodes in fury at the dining table; the framing had always seemed off to me (it’s practically a medium shot, with Mona Lisa confined in a quadrant), until I realized that Brocka was trying to cram all the members of the freeloading extended family into the shot. One doesn’t see much camera movement either in the street and alley scenes, which I thought at first was due to financial constraints, until I realized that the exteriors were just as cramped as the squalid interiors they were filming in.
I don’t really want to go into the plot too much – during a recent second viewing I realized I had forgotten a sudden turnabout in the third act by the excellent Hilda Koronel, who plays our title heroine – and so I’ll refrain from posting a synopsis. Suffice it to say that the events that unfold are awfully sordid, but one can almost imagine Brocka grinning to himself at the twists of the narrative. (Or perhaps not – it’s hard to tell exactly where Brocka’s sympathies lie here, and besides, it’s out of scope for this blog entry.) In any case, it’s not all somber and cheerless; there’s some business with bath water, for instance, that’s surely meant to be a bit of an uncomfortable running joke.
The acting is of uniformly high caliber, partly because the roles, from the screenplay by Mario O’Hara and Lamberto Antonio, are far more complex than Tinimbang, for instance. (O’Hara, who played Berto the leper, also wrote the story and screenplay for Tinimbang, and is one of the canonical Filipino directors in his own right.) Koronel is good as always, but really, those cheekbones of hers simply don’t look like they belong in this movie. Ruel Vernal is simply fantastic as the villain: smooth rascal one moment, thuggish brute in another.
But Insiang should perhaps be best remembered for Mona Lisa’s corrosive performance as a short-tempered harridan who “inappropriately” revels in her sexuality. I’ve re-watched the movie from start to finish pretending that Tonia was the star and wronged heroine of the film, and honestly, it works. Even the torrent of invective coming from a woman like her – an abandoned mother, forced to feed a starving passel of extended relatives, simply looking for solace wherever it can be found – seems justifiable. She’s almost sympathetic.
Insiang may ostensibly be about its female characters, but it’s also a relentlessly scathing portrait of Filipino masculinity at its ugliest, with women seen as male chattel. In one scene, we see Insiang in the street as she carries her ironed laundry between a group of children playing on one side and the young men gambling on the other. The point is clear: both possess the same amount (or lack) of maturity, except that the men have no excuse.
Well – they do, kind of: “I’m only a man,” the men in Brocka’s films seem to say over and over, as a pathetic plea. They can’t help themselves, both literally and metaphorically, and it might be key to understanding Brocka’s view on gender relations. Or something.
The women don’t fare particularly well, either; as in Tinimbang, sharp tongues are used to discipline and ostracize each other. With only her words and a hot clothes iron for defense, Insiang finally confronts her mother with the truth. Seared into my brain, it’s the scene I remember most from the movie trailer while it played on TV when I was a child, and I was surprised to discover later that its violence was primarily emotional. And I was similarly surprised, in an even later re-watching, to discover how the scene, as powerful and emotionally bruising as it was, is played out in a cringingly stereotypical “female” manner. There are “strong” women in this film, all right, but only the blinkered would call this a film about female empowerment.
Insiang isn’t without its missteps, to be sure, and when they’re bad they can be horrid: the cello and flute swell in the background every single time the camera zooms in on Insiang, and fights proceed along the choreographed over-the-top Pinoy way, with the usual screaming and slapping and tossing of various kitchen implements. But there are small, smart touches, like the way housewives chatting in front of a sari-sari store are filmed through iron bars, making them look imprisoned, or the meticulous way Brocka consistently foregrounds triangular relationships, framing scenes of two people in conversation, with an isolated third peering in from one side. It’s compelling work, to be sure, but I wish, as I seem to do every time I see a Brocka film, that he had exercised a little more subtlety.
*Not to be confused with Allan Paule in Macho Dancer (1988), who plays a wide-eyed naïf from the provinces – there’s no mistaking the fact that Brocka, a native of Sorsogon, identifies with his protagonists – but the aesthetics are texturally opposite: one’s about grime, and the other’s about soap. Lots and lots of soap.