The 1980’s were a harsh time in Philippine history. Not to say that the previous decades weren’t difficult for the country and its people, but during the Martial Law years (1972-1981), when Ferdinand Marcos rewrote the country’s Constitution to install himself as the de facto leader, the veil of calm serenity and economic prosperity gave those living in the country at least the illusion of law and order. Of course, that sense of safety and security was achieved by a nationwide curfew which curtailed the power of the press and media from any serious reportage. By the start of the 1980’s though, there was a political shift as the nation was in the midst of an economic tailspin and although Marcos had either imprisoned, exiled, or killed those he deemed threats, the quality of life for a majority of the population that he professed to champion had not improved one iota. As the new society he had sought to build began to crumble around him, Marcos lifted martial law in 1981 though he still had unlimited control of government resources. At that time, he promptly called for a new election which he, to no one’s surprise, won with 88% of the votes. The opposition boycotted and in 1983 prompted Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino to return and help organize and rebuild the political party he began in a jail cell in 1978 dubbed Lakas ng Bayan or People’s Power Movement. Aquino never got the chance to fight Marcos. An assassin’s bullet took his life moments after his plane landed in Manila International Airport. After his death, the opposition movement exponentially grew. The upper middle class, the poor and impoverished, wealthy businessmen who chafed under Marcos’s rule and even the Catholic church and military rallied behind their martyred saint.
During these chaotic times, the Philippine film industry plodded along. Those deemed auteurs, e.g. Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, and Mario O’Hara, were championed by many as humanist directors making socially conscious films and, for a time, their work was seen as a tool to oust Marcos from power. Beside films from these directors, popular cinema of the day offered a wide variety of movies to entertain the public. One such popular genre in the Philippines is the sex film or bomba film which began during the tail-end of the golden decade of Filipino cinema, the 1950’s, when audiences were clamoring for something other than romantic melodramas and slapstick comedies. Thus, bomba films were produced to challenge the social conventions and norms being propagated by the conservative status quo.
Although produced primarily to titillate male viewers, much of the content in a bomba film could be classified as subversive, and so the films themselves provided an outlet of rebellion for those not only making them but also for the audience who paid to see them. Their popularity was so overwhelming that, even during the repressive martial law-era, Ferdinand Marcos’s attempts to clamp down on the production and distribution of bomba films met with failure. Of course this did not mean producers were completely insulated from the politics of the day. Though the MTRCB (The Movie and Television Classification Board), a government agency responsible for rating television and film in the Philippines and beholden only to the president, usually didn’t pay much attention to subject matter, they did scrutinize the use of nudity and sexual content by filmmakers. Thus, to appease censors, producers did away with full frontal nudity, explicit sexual content, and even went so far as to rename the genre and market the films as bold films. These “cleaned up” soft-core sex films featured leading ladies wearing wet clothes or flimsy bathing suits forced into carefully shot sexual encounters. By the mid-80s though as Marcos’s power began to wane a rougher and more socially minded sex film began to appear in theaters and festivals. Films like Tikoy Aguiluz’s Boatman (1984), Celso Ad. Castillo’s Burlesk Queen (1977), and Ishmael Bernal’s Manila By Night (1980) directly challenged the everyday injustices perpetrated by FIlipino society on the disenfranchised, e.g. women, the poor and impoverished, and the gay community.
The movie that truly elevated the sex film to the level of Art with a capital “A” would have to be Peque Gallaga’s Scorpio Nights (1985). Taking the basic ingredients of the bomba genre and infusing it with the visual vocabulary of the art film, Scorpio Nights was not just an erotically charged thriller but also read by critics at that time as a subversive commentary on Marcos’s “New Society” and its repressive cultural policies. The plot, though threadbare, involves a college student named Danny (Daniel Fernando) who becomes obsessed with spying on a young couple who live beneath his humid dorm room. Every night, peeking through the tiny slit on the floor of his apartment, Danny watches as the security guard (Orestes Ojeda) comes home from work, eat his dinner, cleans up after himself and then gets into bed to have sex with his sleeping wife (Anna Marie Gutierrez), who neither moves and hardly responds during coitus. The clockwork regularity of their lovemaking and, in turn, Danny’s increased need for sexual release one night leads the young man to cross the threshold from inappropriate to criminal behavior when he breaks into the security guard’s apartment and, pretending to be him, has sex with the sleeping wife. Danny does not stop with this encounter though and continues to bed the passive housewife until one night she finally opens her eyes. Afraid of being caught, Danny jumps up from her bed, but before he can leave she grabs onto his arm and pulls Danny in to continue their lovemaking. From that moment onwards the two lovers have sealed their fate.
Upon first watching Gallaga’s film, audiences might be inclined to pay more attention to the acrobatic sex scenes, as well as the picture’s minuscule budget and lowbrow genre than the director’s visual imagination. Gallaga. in fact, was a production designer before he came into directing. Famous in the Philippine film industry for his meticulous research and attention to detail, Gallaga had already won several awards for his contributions to later-canonized films such as Manila By Night (1980) and Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? (1976), a film which Gallaga reportedly spent considerable time studying thousands of vintage black and white photos of old Manila from the turn of the century to get the most accurate period look. By the time he formally directed his first feature, the epic period drama Oro Plata Mata (1983), Peque Gallaga had solidified his place in the canon of great Filipino filmmakers, and yet the accolades he received didn’t lead him to adopt the persona of “artist”. Instead, he followed up Oro Plata Mata with a horror short in the popular Shake, Rattle & Roll (1984) series as well as the celebrated B-movie Virgin Forest (1985).
Yet Gallaga’s busy schedule almost cut his career short during the Christmas of 1984 when he suffered a massive heart attack. While still in the process of recovering, Gallaga was approached by talent manager Douglas Quijano with an offer. The Experimental Cinema Of The Philippines (ECP), an organization run by Imee Marcos whose goal was to foster and encourage the development of Philippine cinema, had just established a no-censorship policy and wanted to test the financial waters by producing a few low budget sex-oriented films. The producer Lily Monteverde, endearingly known by those in the industry as “Mother Lily”, had gathered the financing needed and wrangled Anne Marie Gutierrez and Orestes Ojeda to sign on and agree to full frontal nudity. Afraid of never being able to work again due to his heart condition, Gallaga signed on to the project, though more than a few had reservations about whether he would survive long enough to complete the film. Due to this reputation, Mother Lily left Gallaga alone with the film’s minuscule budget, knowledgeable in the simple fact that the sex scenes alone guaranteed a return in her investment.
The origin of the film’s story began with a news article that Gallaga’s art director, Rommel Bernardino, had read concerning a police officer who killed his wife upon discovering that she was having an affair with a college student that was living with them. To offset the obvious commentary on Martial Law, Gallaga rewrote the husband character to be a security guard instead of a police officer, the former being a job far lower in the totem pole but still allowing for the character to have a gun. Beyond that detail, Gallaga also made sure that the security guard and his wife went unnamed throughout the film. For Gallaga, this was not a story about two specific people, but rather a microcosmic study of a specific place and era.
For visual antecedents, Gallaga looked to a 1978 porn film, V: The Hot One (1978), for inspiration as well as Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976), a movie which has the distinction of being the first, with the aid of the ECP, shown uncut and uncensored in the Manila Film Centre. Working closely with his production designer Don Escudero, the two men realized that how the script was written didn’t require any extraneous shots or scenes outside of the tenement building. This epiphany didn’t just keep the budget in check but also forced his production crew to turn the large tenement compound they had into a living, breathing, sweaty microcosm of what the majority of Filipinos considered normal living conditions at that time. Adding details like posters of scantily clad women and Western rock stars on the walls of Danny’s dorm room, the incessant howling cats which prowl and annoy the tenants, as well as the melodramas blaring from various radios and the sad sack guitarist Elton (Caloy Balasbas) whose songs can be heard from every apartment in the slum house, the building itself truly becomes another character in the story. In fact, the dystopian world that Gallaga’s camera captures is not so far removed from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), the main difference being that Gallaga’s film is set in the horrific present and not in the distant future.
The tenement complex, though divided by decaying walls and leaky roofs, is a shared living space where grandmothers, little children, drug addicts, student activists and the working poor mingle freely with each other. For Gallaga, his microcosm is more like a Petri dish in which a whole host of bacteria and germs thrive or die under a blistering summer heat wave. Danny’s obsession with spying on the security guard’s wife can be read in several ways. The first is simply that the young man is stricken with boredom and, with no “healthy” outlets to release his aggression, he preys on Anne Marie Guttierrez’s character since she is a woman from a lower social class and left alone all night with no one to protect her. In essence, she becomes the perfect target for a sexual predator like Danny. Yet, this reading is far too simple and doesn’t take into account the motives of the housewife to continue the affair, even as the possibility of death looms even larger. I think it is far more accurate to read Gallaga’s film as a gothic nihilist love story with the characters of Danny and the housewife playing the role of undead ghouls. Since it can’t just be a throwaway detail that the security guard’s wife lays in bed motionless like a corpse throughout a majority of the film and only begins to show some life after she begins her relationship with Danny, it is not a leap to label the security guard’s wife as a metaphoric succubus. Especially when the wife realizes that it is Danny she has been sleeping with and not her husband, she consummates their lovemaking by first spitting into his mouth and then having him spit into her mouth, after which both kiss and swallow their respective partner’s bodily fluids. This is an action reminiscent of a vampire or zombie infecting their victim and I doubt that it’s a coincidence that, from that moment onward, Danny becomes a slave to her desires and whims.
Beyond this metaphorical interpretation though, one can’t forget that, like the rest of the denizens of the tenement compound, Danny and the security guard’s wife have no future either together or apart. Gallaga doesn’t proselytize about the evils of the Marcos regime, but what his camera presents to us about these two people and the environment that they live in leaves us with no other way to read their future prospects as anything other than bleakness and hopelessness. For Danny, who we are told is a college student, the fact that he can’t even afford a boat ticket to get back home during summer break, plus having a student activist roommate being surveilled by the military police, ultimately dooms him to a life of continued poverty. Just as the security guard’s wife is equally doomed to be financially dependent on her husband and any children she were to bring up would most likely be doomed to the same squalid existence. As Noel Vera, the esteemed critic and writer of Critic After Dark (BigO Books, 2005), a book which surveys the last fifty years of Philippine cinema, has stated about the graphic and steamy sex scenes that have made the film so memorable, “Everyone is fucking in the face of death.”
When production finally finished and Gallaga had prepared a final cut of the film, he showed Scorpio Nights to the ECP and waited for them to set a premiere date. However, to his shock, Vice Director-General Johnny Litton had ordered the film to be secretly recut. The ECP’s hypocrisy in professing to champion filmmakers and their works and then doing the complete opposite by stifling them riled up the director into such a frenzy that he apparently loaded a moviola onto the back of a jeepney with a few batteries, stole his film back from the ECP and restored his film to its original cut. The film eventually went on to win several awards for cinematography, music, and sound. The awards and accolades Scorpio Nights has received all these years might make newcomers to the film a bit wary of its canonized status in Philippine cinema. Many of the films deemed culturally worthy ultimately seem dated when viewed through our modern perspective, but Scorpio Nights does not suffer at all. If the film was only about the sex scenes then it would have easily been forgotten, but Gallaga took great pains to honestly capture through the lens of his camera all the vices and virtues of being human. Not bad for a so-called porn film.