Thursday, October 17, 2013

On Deliberately Unpleasant “Bleak Chic” Cinema: Lino Brocka’s Insiang

There are some movies (and books) that are so relentlessly bleak, depressing, and unpleasant, that I can’t imagine why someone would want to make them.  Surely they couldn’t have derived any enjoyment from making them, anymore than someone would derive enjoyment from watching (or reading) them.  Now, usually, I like to discuss the things I like on this blog—you’ll notice that most of my reviews are “positive” because I’m deliberately not discussing the things I don’t like.  But I just watched a movie so sadistically ugly that I feel the need to bitch about it.

The movie in question is the late Filipino director Lino Brocka’s Insiang (1976).  This grimy, poorly composed piece of miserablism depicts a young woman (the Insiang of the title) who lives in squalid poverty with her abusive mother and her mother’s violent and sexually predatory boyfriend.  The boyfriend rapes Insiang, and when she reports it to her mother, the boyfriend alleges that Insiang goes about the house naked (which she does not) so how could he not be seduced and, you know, rape her?  The mother is persuaded by this line of reasoning.  So Insiang turns to her boyfriend, Babeto, and asks him to elope with her.  They go to a seedy motel, where they have sex, and then he abandons her.  Everyone gossips about her and thinks she’s a slut.  Even her mother can’t bear her “promiscuity” despite openly fooling around with her own boyfriend right in front of her daughter. 
In many ways, this film could have been like Robert Bresson’s masterpiece Mouchette (1968), which follows the similar persecutions and sufferings of a young girl surrounded by perverts and hypocrites and assholes in general.  But even at his cruelest, Bresson still made sure his films looked good.  If only Insiang had been in black-and-white like Mouchette, it would have served to aestheticize the proceedings.  But instead Brocka shot his film in the hideous, grimy color of seventies cinema (like we see in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, for instance, or hell, the later color films of Bresson, which look awful).  Furthermore, Bresson’s black-and-white films are simply but elegantly composed and possessed of a spare, icy beauty.  Insiang, by contrast, plays out more like a Filipino Precious (or at least I assume it does; I have no interest in seeing Precious, it looks tasteless and racist in the sort of way that would appeal to white liberals who voted for Obama and don’t understand how a movie like Precious could be racist).

Now, let me say that I don’t object to sad subject matter in general.  I’m a pessimist and I don’t mind seeing that reflected in art.  But the art needs to be artful.  Just because your movie is sad doesn’t excuse it from the responsibility of all great art, which is to be beautiful.  And Insiang isn’t beautiful.  And it’s not just the poor production values: Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki is cheap; so are most of the films of Abbas Kiarostami.  But they don’t indulge in miserablism and they don’t ignore the aesthetic necessities that bind all art, no matter its subject matter.

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