RICARDO LEE: A Writer in the Film Industry
Gusto makilala nila ako na I’m a writer, na I’m not just a scriptwriter. In the end, pag nawala na ako, sana pag pinag-usapan nila ako, sasabihin nila, “A, oo, si Ricky, ‘yung writer.” -“Pasakalye,” interbyu ni Flor C. Caagusan
The Philippine film industry in this time of crisis can look back to its harvest of movies in the past two decades and consider itself enriched by the work of a writer whose screenplays have given the industry subject matter, characters and themes that affirm the transitional, the emergent and the troubling in our cultural heritage. That writer is Ricardo Lee whose most earnest screenplays are a legacy for a future generation that could learn much from the society and the Filipinos that Lee has created.
In his 24 years of writing in the film industry, Ricardo Lee has turned out around 120 screenplays and won some 50 awards. For a scriptwriter who did not study film, it is phenomenal that he has attained the stature of icon in an industry that does not have much respect for a writer. How has he been able to create a niche for himself where others of his craft had simply melded with the directors who made use of their services? Lee attributes his good fortune to the fact that he came into the film industry at a time in the beginning of the 1980s when the best of the new directors – Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, Laurice Guillen, Marilou Diaz-Abaya -were creating signature films, and he was a writer pliant and open enough to learn about filmmaking from them, and knowledgeable enough about writing and literature to dialogue with directors who had respect for his mind.
“Katangahan,” as Lee calls his pliancy and openness, enabled him to learn from persons who opened doors and windows to new ideas and experiences that expanded the horizons of the provinciano from Daet, Camarines Norte, who had run away to Manila in search of paglaya, his personal freedom.
Freedom for Lee at that time was flight from an orphaned childhood when he was dependent on relatives who themselves did not have means enough to be able to send him to Manila for his college education. At that time, he found escape in books borrowed from the town library and Tagalog movies watched over and over again in the town moviehouse at the very front row where figures on the screen loomed much bigger, with only hopia and a bottle of pop to keep hunger away. In his final year in high school, he responded to a call for stories in the Philippines Free Press which would be paid P50.00 upon publication. His story “Mayon” was accepted, and with only fifty pesos in his pocket, he said goodbye to Daet and deprivation.
In Manila, Lee found “freedom.” True, he was on his own, but he was homeless and hungry, moving from job to job (waiter, vendor, tutor, accounting clerk, etc.) that did not bring enough to pay for his tuition and meals. In time he was able to get admitted to U.P, and as an AB English major, he found friends among fellow aspiring writers. That was when he discovered another kind of freedom, that of a creative writer.
Writing opened up a new world that was his own creation, no longer the world borrowed from books and films. In ten stories that made classmates sit up and gawk and set contest judges aglow, Lee poured out his life as an orphan chafing to break away from the constraints of guardians and the intolerance of a small town, and gave life to characters whose confinement and deprivation replicated his experience of life in Daet and of his early days in Manila. By this time, Ricky Lee had been winning literary prizes, and a circle of writing friends was beginning to revolve around him. He had by this time earned a reputation as “the Bikolano Chinese majoring in AB English but writing in Tagalog.” The new world that creative writing opened up for Lee gave him an identity and put him in touch with an audience, readers whom his words could move and even change. In an interview, he expressed exhilaration at discovering the power of fiction:
“I found out that if I wrote, people would like me. It seemed I only needed to push a button and they would respond by liking me. So I wrote furiously so I’d be liked furiously.”
University and college campuses in the late 1960s were seething with anger at the way things were and hopes that the future would be different. At UP, given his affinity with the deprived and the disconnected, he took up the anger and the hopes of his generation. He had in the meantime found employment as a journalist in the Philippines Free Press and in his work, he easily gravitated towards the activist movement. The national democratic writers’ organization PAKSA (Pen for the People’s Progress) found in this young journalist a dedicated cultural worker, tireless and fearless in seeking out subjects that would project the imminence of a social revolution. During this period in his life, Lee now claims that working within the movement brought focus to his world which he had built on improvised props salvaged from instinctive activism, existentialism, hippie values and agnosticism. The outside world and its component elements began to make sense, bringing stability and purpose to his existence.
The declaration of Martial Law in 1972 and the accompanying clampdown on media lost Lee his job of newspapering. Although he did not disappear into the underground, he remained a cultural worker for the movement. The movie industry found it easy to put up with the regime’s restrictions and was beginning to grind out its usual entertainment for the masses. It was then that Lee, to earn a living, tried his hand at writing a movie script. Midway into the project, however, he asked to drop out. Then in January 1974, Lee fell victim to a wave of military arrests in Metro Manila and was imprisoned in Fort Bonifacio for the greater part of the year. After his release, in need again for a livelihood, Lee found himself trying again to write for the movies.
He had begun work on a script for Mike de Leon on the subject of the supposed “miracle” of the Virgin in the island of Cabra. The project failed to get off the ground, but in 1979 Lee completed the script for a full-length documentary on Pinoy Rock. That was “Pabonggahan,” directed by Gil Portes. His big break, however, was as co-writer with Pete Lacaba on the script of the Lino Brocka film “Jaguar.” When the film was released, “Jaguar” was an immediate critical hit, and was invited to the Cannes International Film Festival where it earned Brocka a place in the festival’s roster of Third World directors. In the 1980 Urian awards, the Lacaba-Lee script of “Jaguar” received the Best Screenplay award.
After “Jaguar,” Lee was made as scriptwriter, he had become a certified member of the film industry, his reputation for substantial and insightful screenplays growing from year to year. Marilou Diaz-Abaya got Lee to produce a screenplay about a young woman who broke off her marriage when she found that that the man she married had sick ideas about sex. “Brutal” (1980) grew out of that story idea. When it was finally filmed, “Brutal” had evolved into a double-layered narrative about gender relationships, one layer lurid and violent about the abuse and oppression of a naive woman, and the other “civilized” and “enlightened,” about the live-in arrangement between a “liberated” woman journalist and her executive lover. The victim in the first narrative is charged with the murder of her husband and his friends, but has turned catatonic and cannot talk about the rape and drug orgy that culminated in the triple murders. The journalist succeeded in getting the victim to talk and her side of the case was heard in court. Lee’s employment of flashbacks and intermittent inter-cutting served not only as devices for driving the narrative forward, but also as a technique suggestive of the shifting modes of perception that piece together facts that make up the truth. This manipulation of sequences and of dialogue and imagery would be a characteristic of Lee’s technique as a story-teller on film. In “Brutal,” the complexity of the narrative was a deviation from the usual run of movie-plots which stick to the obvious in the name of mass appeal and accessibility. In refusing to settle for simplistic writing, Lee this early was asserting his signature of layered meaning in his screenplays.
“Salome” (1981), directed by Laurice Guillen, was adjudged by the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino as Best Picture of 1881, with Lee receiving the award for Best Screenplay. Here once again is a complex murder tale, this time told from three points of view – that of Salome who claims she killed to defend her honor as a housewife, that of the village community convinced that Salome was a seductress capable of the murder, and that of Salome’s husband Kario who says he had ordered Salome, having found her guilty of adultery, to kill her lover as atonement for her infidelity. But Lee’s tale goes beyond the murder. He introduces the character of Lolo Ute, a senile old man obsessed with the posteriors of mermaids who he claims had once abducted him, thus lending a mythic dimension to the tale of desire and its destructive power. In the end, the issue of which version of the murder tells the truth ceases to be a central concern. In the closing sequence, Kario and Salome wander into a seashore away from their home village. As he holds the guilt-stricken Salome in an embrace, Kario puts an end to Salome’s torment by stabbing her. By what seemed like a ritual sacrifice, Lee transports us to a moral realm where passion and tenderness have overwhelmed questions of crime and punishment.
The year 1982 saw Lee creating two screenplays that the writer, judging from the number of times he refers to each when talking about his art, seems to regard as his major achievement. “Moral” (1982), directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya, is a four-story movie about four friends in the University of the Philippines at the height of youth activism in the years before Martial Law. The stories together depict the changing mores and morals of the period before authoritarian repression by a dictatorial regime arrested what for a while was pointing to a transformation of Philippine society. The first story is about a drug-dazed delinquent daughter of a broken marriage who falls obsessively in love with a student activist deeply committed to the cause of the movement. The second is about a flamboyant young woman willing to pay any price to win public adulation, latching on to a dream of becoming a singer for which she had no talent. The third tells about a college teacher trying to cope with being a single mother to her little boy after she was deserted by her husband for a male lover. The fourth story is about a young woman whose aspirations to be a writer were squelched when she married into a family whose concept of a good housewife is a woman ever ready and able to add to the family stable of children. In loading “Moral” with issues and themes of the times, Lee created what might be characterized as a portmanteau screenplay that gathered unto itself political analysis, sociological reportage, current popular culture, gender politics, fashion notes, and morality rating to constitute a veritable epic of the 1970s. Lee in this movie has turned film novelist, breaking movie genres, rejecting comfortable stereotypes and, above all, questioning sacrosanct social and moral values.
Lee has confessed that “Himala” (1982) is his most personal screenplay in which he invested so much of himself – politics, ideals, doubts, visions and repressed childhood memories. In his notes on the writing of the script, Lee has pointed out “Himala” was a screenplay in which I made the fewest concessions. The material originated with me, not with any producer. If it had been an ordinary producer had undertaken it, we might have been asked to provide Nora with a love interest and required to give the story a happy ending. We might even be ordered to make the miracle really happen.
It was his most ambitious project and he was fortunate to have as producer the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines and the intellectual Ishmael Bernal as director. The trademark technical virtuosity was there and the budgetary requirements for the realization of the effects required were provided by the ECP, and the thematic reverberations found a sympathetic response from Bernal. “Himala” moved away from the usual narrative about individuals embroiled in amorous liaisons. Now Lee was depicting an entire village that emerges as a microcosm of Philippine society as Cupang seeks to cope with the onslaught of tourists/outsiders that has brought to the place an entirely different culture from the capital city.
Without quite making a statement of its message, “Himala” was about art and reality, faith and doubt, flesh and spirituality, truly a masterpiece that can be claimed equally by both Lee and Bernal. The real miracle in the movie was in its use of point of view that complexified implications and its employment of multiple parallel stories that expanded the moral dimensions of the narrative.
The presence of the writer is much in evidence in the screenplay “Karnal” (1983) which has the distinction of being the only script Lee wrote in 1983, and that was the only year when he wrote only one script. “Karnal,” a grisly story with parricide, suicide and infanticide, is Ricky Lee’s bid to write Greek tragedy. A couple from Manila comes home to an isolated town where the man’s widower-father runs a flourishing hacienda. The narrative involves the widower-father lusting after his daughter-in-law, the son decapitating his father in a physical confrontation, the wife giving birth to a baby with devilish features that she subsequently kills, and the son committing bloody suicide in jail. The lurid tale is told from the point of view of a narrator, a woman fictionist, daughter of the unobtrusive sister of the father-slayer, a spinster whose avoidance of love and lust is a mark of the continuing feudal repression that had sparked the tragic events in her grandfather’s time. Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s meticulous directorial work gave Lee’s screenplay artistic coherence and successfully captured the grand design of the narrative. By interspersing shots of the narrator in her workroom in contemporary San Juan with the events in the narrative of the remote 1930s, Lee expanded the moral vision of the film, showing the continuing impact of the feudal world of the grandfather on lives lived long after its institutions have been visibly dismantled. In Lee’s filmography, “Karnal” will be remembered as Lee’s memorial of himself as literary man. No other screenplay he wrote in subsequent years has approached the brash assertion in “Karnal” of Lee’s identity as writer. In the five screenplays – all written at the onset of his career as a writer in the film industry -, the scriptwriter would credit to his katangahan as writer the various technical innovations and the consequent thematic complexities of his narratives. In Lee’s screenplays, reality is never simple, much less easy to understand.
Ricky Lee came to the industry from literature, not from any film school or workshop. He is in this regard both naive and sophisticated. Naive, because he did not know enough of filmmaking to make him seek to be mainstream. Instead, without his being aware of it, he wrote scripts that broke rules and conventions, and thus opened spaces for the Filipino film to explore subject matter, characters and themes that tradition had kept out.
And he was sophisticated, because his grounding in literature had put him in touch with moral absurdities and profundities in great literary works, and bringing these into his writing for film, he was able to infuse the best of his screenplays with gravity and depth unusual in an industry that had assumed its main reason for being is entertaining the audience out there.
Back to Natatanging Gawad Urian