Employing a quiet, experimental cinematic style, Ishmael Bernal's opus recreates the quality and slow pace of life in a dying village surrounded by the sea, as it is caught in the eternal cycle of love and hate, of fertility and pollution, of birth and death. A bold—and successful— attempt to depart from the usual commercial fare, it cryptically paints a large, bleak canvas showing rural fold and how their chances at redemption and happiness are irreversibly decimated by poverty, ignorance, neglect and the dark side of big business.
A love triangle leads to a crime of passion as an innocent slum girl, Insiang (Hilda Koronel), is transformed into a scheming, ruthless woman by harsh social and physical conditions and by here even harsher experience. After being raped by her mother's live-in lover (Ruel Vernal), Insiang makes the lover fall in love with here, so that the mother (Mona Lisa) would be forced to butcher the man in a gruesome fit of jealousy.
A sprawling, picaresque tale revolving around a character named Kulas (Christopher de Leon) who is tasked to bring bastard child of a Spanish friar to the city, and in the process, wanders through the Philippine Revolution against Spain and the Philippine-American War, and wonders about the meaning of being Filipino in those critical decades of national self-definition.