Modern Living

‘Insiang’ revisited

SAVOIR FAIRE  - Mayenne Carmona -

In 1976, Ruby Tiong Tan was a young, successful, businesswoman, whose dream was to produce a movie that would make it to the Cannes Film Festival. She was scouting around for a good script for a year, but none of them were good enough. One day, master director Lino Brocka presented her with a script that marked her first and hopefully not her last, successful attempt as a movie producer. The script was Insiang.  Ruby remembers that Brocka came to her on a Wednesday; by Friday she, decided to start filming.

The late Lino B. and Ruby Tiong Tan were determined to finish the film in 21 days, so that it could be an entry to the first Manila Film Festival. They were shooting day and night in the slums of Tondo, then considered “gangster land.” Nobody who lived outside Tondo would dare visit the place. Tiong Tan recalls that they had nine policemen on 24-hour duty to protect them from the different gangs that were involved in the fatal dart wars. At the time, anyone who was hit by the poisonous dart could die immediately. It was the first film ever filmed in Tondo, the densely populated shantytown where poverty, anger and violence lived side by side in the hearts and minds of its residents.

Briefly told, Insiang is the story of a mother, Tonia, (played by Mona Lisa) and her beautiful young daughter Insiang (played by Hilda Koronel). Tonia works in the market and has a boyfriend, Dado (Ruel Vernal), the tough guy of the neighborhood. The mother invites Dado to move in with them and as the story unfolds, Dado rapes the young Insiang. The anger and hatred within her reaches a boiling point and she comes up with a plan for revenge.

She willlingly gives herself to Dado and makes him fall in love with her. Then one day, within earshot of the mother whom she saw from the mirror, she made him talk to her about his love and their plan to run away. The mother is so furious, she gets a pair of scissors and stabs him to death.

Brocka filled the conventional drama with the desperate subsistence of the residents. Open sewers, outdoor plumbing, gambling tables, and smoking garbage dumps are as much part of the realistic plot as the characters whose existence they define.

”This film is basically a character study of a young girl growing up in the slums. I wanted to show the violence of the overcrowded neighborhoods; the loss of human dignity caused by the social environment and the ensuing need for change,”  said the late Lino Brocka of his much lauded film.

The film made it to the Manila Film Festival and it won some awards: Best Director for Lino Brocka, Best Supporting for Actress, Mona Lisa, Best Musical Score for Minda Azarcon, among others.

In 1976, Pierre Rissiant, selector of foreign films for the Cannes Film Festival, called Ruby T. Tan to say that Insiang was selected for best foreign film. Ruby ignored his call, because she was so busy with the stock market. But Rissiant put the pressure on her to come so she decided to accept his invitation. Imelda Marcos’ opposed the film on grounds that it showed the squalor of the slums instead of the beauty of the Philippines. The Board of Censors vetoed the film upon Ruby’s request, they agreed to have a second screening and to Ruby’s surprise, priests and nuns came and rallied for it. Public support pressured the board to approve the film, so off it went to the Cannes Film Festival, in the nick of time.

Tiong Tan recalls that she smuggled the big rolls of films in her luggage, and miraculously none of the customs officers opened her bags. She got to the festival with barely enough time to put subtitles on her movie.

Her entourage consisted of Hilda Koronel, media persons headed by Jullie Yap Daza, Lino Brocka and others.

The film opened the Director’s Fortnight Division and Le Monde had Hilda on the cover.  Farah Fawcett had a small passport size picture on the bottom of the cover page. The film Insiang garnered a lot of publicity from the local newspapers.

Insiang paved the way for Philippine films to get to international film festivals. 

Tiong Tan emphasized that during the making of the film, she insisted to Brocka that she would not tolerate cursing and foul language. Brocka said, “how can Tondo slum dwellers not use foul language?”

In the end, RT Tan got her way. Another thing she insisted upon was no sex scenes please, and again Brocka had to give in to her.

Fast forward to Aug 2006.

R. Tiong Tan gets an invitation  from Lincoln Center ‘s program director Richard Pena. She ignores the invitation, thinking that it is just another film festival and Insiang had already graced several film festivals after the Cannes Film Festival. It is in fact already in the film archives in Japan, Paris, London, and the Cultural Center in Manila.

But Lincoln Center was giving Insiang an important honor. They selected it as one of the three best  films of the world in the Retrospective Section, together with Warren Beatty’s 1981 revolution epic, Reds, and the Italian comedy Mafioso by Alberto Lattuada.

Ruby, prayed so hard to help her make a decision. She knew the Lord wanted her to accept this honor. She arrived in New York on Oct. 13, the eve before the showing of Insiang. Lincoln Center had a whole day of activities prepared for her. She had to speak on stage before 1,200 member of the international movie audience. There were interviews with The New York Times and TV interviews as well.

“It was my chance to give the Lord’s message to the international movie audience that you don’t need sex, foul language and violence for a movie to make it!”

During the showing of Insiang her son Jonathan and his wife, the brother of Lino Brocka whose name escapes her, Fiel Zabat who was Insiang’s set director and who now works with Chanel, New York, Vincent Nebrida, coordinator at the Lincoln Center, Vicky Belarmino, a film director , all came to give Ruby moral  support. After the showing , Lincoln center hosted a dinner for her.
Insiang is a now considered a classic and is internationally known. It was the first film produced by Tiong Tan. But it will not be the last.  She is planning a sequel to Insiang but, she says, “ I would rather not call it Insiang Part 2, because, how can it match the standards of Lino Brocka!”


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