Philippines, the largest Catholic nation in South-east Asia, has also the most developed sex film industry. And the films are classics from Peque Gallaga's Scorpio Nights to Laurice Guillen's Init Sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion). But they are also about the politics of that time and the oppression of the Marcos era. Critic Noel Vera illuminates.


Sex films are another staple of Philippine cinema (despite the conservative Catholicism of most Filipinos); a rare few transcend the genre - either through sheer explicitness, or through unflinching sensuality. Peque Gallaga’s Scorpio Nights uses sex to express the decadence and despair of its time and place - Philippines 1985, a year after Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, when the economy was in shambles and President Ferdinand E. Marcos was still in power. It’s about a student (Daniel Fernando) peeping through the floorboards to the apartment below, to watch a woman (Ana Marie Gutierrez) and her husband make love; later, student and housewife have an affair.

Gallaga was reportedly inspired by Nagisa Oshima’s In The Realm Of The Senses; I think Gallaga improves on his source, adding (unlike Oshima) a real sense of danger to the sex scenes. The two lovers know what will happen if the husband (Orestes Ojeda, as the gun-toting security guard) ever finds out, and yet do it anyway; they are literally fucking in the face of death. The Filipino audiences of 1985 recognized themselves onscreen and swooned; audiences today still swoon - they know a doomed act of defiance when they see one. Scorpio Nights represents a high-water mark in the Filipino sex film; all others, including the film’s own sequel, seem like limp sausages in comparison.

Laurice Guillen’s Init Sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion) is, if possible, an even more arousing film than Scorpio Nights. It’s about a woman (Lorna Tolentino) who changes personality to please the man she’s with, and about the man (Dindo Fernando) who brings her sexuality to full bloom. The sex (done without any actual nudity) is both sensual and profane, swollen with unhealthy yet undeniably powerful emotions.

It’s one of the most successful adaptations of The Story of O I’ve ever seen, where the woman’s submissiveness is every bit as disturbing as the man’s sadism. The film declares that women have a right to their desires, their own path to self-destruction - a darker, less easily digestible message than most militant feminists can take (the film was attacked when it opened commercially). Ironic, given that it’s also the finest film ever made by a Filipina - a daring, defiant work of erotic cinema.

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It seems every major Filipino filmmaker has to make at least one noir film where the city of Manila is a main character; Ishmael Bernal’s Manila By Night is easily the most sophisticated - and sardonic - of the genre, and the most difficult to describe. The film follows the threads of several lives that tangle with each other, across the tapestry that is Metro Manila; at its most basic level it’s a game of one-upsmanship: which character can shed the most illusions the soonest - the nurse, the gay lover, the taxi driver, or the pothead?

It’s a vivid demonstration of what Gustav Hasford said in his novel The Short Timers - that human nature seen honestly, now that is ugly. The film owes an obvious debt to Robert Altman’s Nashville - with the difference that Altman’s characters never saw this much grit or grime or outrageous melodrama in their lives. It in turn has been imitated by most subsequent multiple-story, multiple-character Filipino films ( Moral and Bayad Puri (Paid With My Purity) come to mind) - without, however, matching its sweep and intricacy.

Brocka’s Maynila Sa Kuko Ng Liwanag (Manila In The Claws Of Neon) offers a simpler, much tighter plot altogether: Julio Magadia (Bembol Roco) goes to the city to look for his loved one, Ligaya Paraiso, and loses himself in the hellhole that is Metro Manila.

The film is often called Brocka’s best, as well as one of the greatest Filipino films ever made; I disagree... but understand the high regard. Brocka uses melodrama unashamedly (Ligaya Paraiso roughly translates as "Joyful Paradise," a name that, when you think about it, belongs to a porn star); what lifts his work above ordinary melodrama is the documentary feel - the sense that what you’re seeing is what the camera caught just a few minutes ago, right outside the theater.

Maynila is one of the most intense expressions of that unique sensibility ever, no small thanks to the director of photography, Mike De Leon, who later became a major Filipino filmmaker himself. The film’s visuals defined "The Manila Look" for practically every noir that followed, including those Brocka made himself (Insiang, Jaguar, Macho Dancer) and those made by others (Bernal - less successfully I think - with Manila By Night; Peque Gallaga, somewhat, with Scorpio Nights; and Tikoy Aguiluz with Boatman).

Mario O’Hara’s Bagong Hari (The New King) takes the neo-realism of Maynila Sa Kuko and twists it even further, into baroque nightmare. O’Hara evokes a vast and corrupt cesspool of a city, filled with predatory creatures constantly feeding off each other. It’s a city where assassinations are commonplace, conspiracies are a standard mode of operation, and torture an occasional recreational perk - a city where two people fight each other to the death, and the decadent rich place bets over the outcome.

Of all the Manila films I’ve seen, Bagong Hari is the most violent and extreme, which is only fitting - the film, like Scorpio Nights, was made during the final years of the Marcos regime, when the despair was at its most intense. A few days later, the February revolution broke out, and Bagong Hari disappeared in the political turmoil that followed, surviving only in the memories of the few that saw it. If we grant for a moment that trends do not strictly follow calendar cutoff dates... and that the films of the early ’80s were a direct result of what was begun in the mid-’70s... then Bagong Hari should properly be called the last great film of the ’70s Golden Age.

Note: Menzone (January 2000). The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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March 20, 2007

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