Ricky Lee’s chariots
Mention the movie “Himala” and you can immediately visualize Nora Aunor kneeling on the ground, eyes toward the heavens as she portrays a faith healer.
And the movie “Salome”? You think of Gina Alajar.
“Muro-ami”? Cesar Montano.
We associate movies with the actors and actresses in lead roles. We remember their names, many even knowing about their personal lives.
Some of us will praise the musical score . . . and might be able to praise the composer, some of whom have become well known too.
Then there are cinematographers who transform the camera into a magical tool, capturing everything from grand panoramic scenes down to the most minute of details on a person’s face expressing a particular emotion.
Alas, the scriptwriters are all too invisible and unacknowledged, as is Ricky Lee, who did the screenplays for the movies I mentioned above, and 150 more, including documentaries and television productions.
He has at least been recognized, more often in the literary world, with Carlos Palanca and Urian awards. Last week, we at the University of the Philippines were privileged to give him the Gawad Plaridel, an annual award for excellence in mass media. Previous awardees have included the poet and writer Pete Lacaba, the radio personality Rosa Rosal and, last year, Nora Aunor, who defies categories and was cited as a “transmedia practitioner.”
Ricky Lee is in many ways transmedia, too. In the 1970s and 1980s he contributed many incisive articles on the invisible underbelly of Philippine society: sex work, drug use, child labor. Ricky wrote, too, about the New Peoples Army and the political underground. These appeared in such magazines as Filipino Free Press, Asia-Philippines Leader, Metro Magazine, National Midweek, Veritas and Sunday Inquirer Magazine, many of these part of the “mosquito press” that dared to challenge martial law and censorship.
I’ve mentioned how prolific he has been with screenplays but he also went into playwriting, with two particularly memorable ones: “Pitik-Bulag sa Buwan ng Pebrero” and “DH (Domestic Helper),” the latter with Nora Aunor in the lead role and which went on an international tour in 1993 after standing-room-only local performances.
I felt UP’s award was important as well in recognizing how Ricky has been as an educator and mentor. There is of course Ricky the activist-educator, his films and articles and plays forcing all of us to see the invisible and the marginalized, and tackle such issues as violence against women, children in the streets.
Ricky the mentor comes through too in his workshops for would-be scriptwriters, conducted mainly from his home. He also wrote “Trip to Quiapo,” which is a manual on scriptwriting, and is used as a textbook in several schools’ mass communications program. Ricky, too, conducts workshops for would-be scriptwriters.
I’ve recommended his “Trip to Quiapo” to students taking up anthropology research because Ricky does come close to being an anthropologist with the way he immerses himself in places like Quiapo. Ricky impresses people because he’s so quiet and unassuming, not knowing he’s actually watching, and listening.
He told the audience during the Gawad Plaridel awarding that he takes his students out into the field, which can be Quiapo or Luneta, sometimes staying overnight and the next morning he’ll ask them what they heard, what they hear. He pushes his students to listen, not just to the sounds around them and to voices of people, but also to what’s left unsaid.
At the awarding ceremony too, Ricky talked about how accident-prone he is, walking into glass doors, or opening the wrong car door. Absent-minded professors at the awarding ceremonies could relate to that, but there’s more though to this than forgetfulness. There’s a certain daring-to-do spirit in Ricky that made him leave Daet right after high school, to enter UP to take English. He mentioned the paradox of a Chinese—he was still a Chinese citizen then—going to Manila to take up English but ending up writing in Filipino.
There’s boldness, too, in Ricky’s tackling taboo topics, bringing them to the silver screen, larger-than-life. His films had many sexual themes but never degenerated into the “bomba sexploitation” movies of the 1970s (and, currently, indie films). Those films rely on the visual to carry a story, or a resemblance of a story. In contrast, Ricky’s scripts shaped, and drove, the movies, best captured by that classic line written by Ricky and so dramatically delivered by Nora Aunor: “Walang himala. … ang himala ay nasa puso ng tao.” There are no miracles; miracles are in our hearts.
Ricky’s activism is never preachy, his scripts leaving room for interpretation. I’ve heard “Himala” described as a film about “superstitions” but I’ve watched it with people who do believe in faith healing and miracles and are still convinced afterwards that there are such miracles … except that, yes, maybe the miracles begin in our hearts.
I actually “prescribe” Himala to my medical students to get them to think harder about the role of faith in healing, and ask if it is a faith in God, in the healer, in the procedure, or all of the above, that brings about healing.
During the awarding ceremony I suddenly thought of asking Ricky if he had a Chinese name. He smiled and said yes, “Sheng Lo” and actually wrote it out. He recalled being told it meant a wheelbarrow, which I found odd. I quickly checked on an online Chinese dictionary in my phone and showed the result to Ricky. “Look, ‘lo’ isn’t a wheelbarrow; it’s a chariot.” And the “sheng,” I explained, means heavenly, saintly, celestial. In other words, Ricky’s Chinese name meant a chariot from the heavens.
Ricky laughed, as I did, and he said the name was appropriate because he’s always moving around, and writing his scripts while on the go. More than trips to Quiapo, Ricky lives those trips, transforming them into scripts so we can join him in his fascinating journeys and forays into life.
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