Scorpio Nights (Peque Gallaga, 1985)
Park Jae-ho's Summertime (2001) is an observation of a young man's descent into sexual adventurism. The man, an activist who is hiding from the authorities, lands in an apartment directly above that of a married couple. Through the several holes on his floor, he observes the man from downstairs having sex with his wife, who seems to be in a mechanical trance. One night, the activist proceeds downstairs, pretends to be the husband, and makes love to the wife, who is again in a mechanical trance. When the wife discovers that it is the activist and not her husband who is having sex with her, she consents, and the two engage in an extremely dangerous love affair. The erotic escapades happen amid a backdrop of Korean political unrest, blatantly in display during the non-sexual moments of the film. Sadly, Summertime is quite simply an unenticing piece of muddled erotica.
Scorpio Nights, the 1985 film that directly inspired Park's beautifully photographed but inert dud, is undoubtedly the better film. Scorpio Nights tackles one hot summer where a student (Daniel Fernando) is left alone in his dorm room, which is directly above the apartment of a security guard (Orestes Ojeda) and his wife (Anna Marie Gutierrez). The student peeks through one of the holes that separate their rooms, observes the couple having sex at night, assumes the identity of the husband to have sex with the sultry wife, gets addicted to the dangerous relationship, and finally meets a grisly end. Minus the very specific historic-political setting of Summertime, plot-wise, the two films are almost identical. However, Scorpio Nights achieved an unsurmountable atmosphere of fetishistic, fatalistic and erotic danger that Summertime can never do so with its period-piece, self-important yet soft core pornographic approximations.
What differentiates the two films is its setting. Scorpio Nights, unlike in Summertime with the antiseptic interiors of the secret lovers' love nest, gloats in excessive filth, palpable heat, and unbearable humidity. Director Peque Gallaga, who started as production designer for great Filipino directors like Eddie Romero (Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon (This Was How We Were, What Happens to You Now, 1976)) and Ishmael Bernal (Girlfriend (1980) and City After Dark (198o)), exemplifies a very keen eye for detail. Gallaga's Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death, 1982), which many local critics regard as his masterpiece, is the paramount example of a work of a production designer-turned-director. The film is sumptuous to look at; the period details are pitch perfect; there is a fathomable attention to outward aesthetics (the famous exodus scene where rows of people and their carabaos pass by a backdrop of burning houses is one spectacular feat). That aesthetic sense common in most production designer-turned-directors, once translated in a story that inhabits a world of upstairs-downstairs sexual trysts and societal repression, results in one of the most thematically intriguing, visually arresting, and sweaty-and-kinky erotic films ever made.
Scorpio Nights is almost entirely shot inside a low-income compound that houses a boy's dormitory (the interiors are essentially masculine, with calendars and posters of scantily clad women adorning the walls; also representative of that repressed attitude towards sex (or anything that was abhorrent to Ferdinand Marcos' concept of new society) that is very particular during Marcos-era politics), several single-family dwellings, a welding shop, a basketball court, and a communal bathing area. The area is in itself a masterpiece of production design (by Don Escudero). The courtyard (if you can even call it that) is the perennial meeting place, a flea market of invaluable rumors and stories of macho conquests. Separating these areas are hole-infected partitions, glass windows, and flimsy plywood doors. Certainly, privacy is a luxury here thus, the entire compound is practically the breeding ground for future rapists and sexual deviants with its daytime banter of seedy type and its nighttime invitation for voyeurism and other acts.
The grime, rust, and mud that line that quintessential Manila compound only emphasize the lowlife morality that fuels the near-ridiculous storyline. During its non-erotic moments, the film takes a neo-realist stance at least up to the point wherein the student discovers the unlikely phenomenon of having his sexual fantasies turn into his present reality. Gallaga then revels in erotic camp, of pink mosquito nettings enveloping lustful lovers at the height of their sexual activity; or transparent raincoats hiding their naked bodies from the rain. During those moments of zany visual and sexual excesses, we get a glimpse of exactly why the allure of the downstairs wife is unbearable, even to the point of fucking in the midst of the threat of death. It's that unwavering boyhood fantasy that Gallaga so excellently wants us to believe in; and if we don't necessarily believe in that fantasy overcoming reality, at least it was one hell of a ride.
Some screenshots from the film:
The student fondles a feather (erotic poster in the background)
The entrance to the compound
Residents of the compound hanging their laundry
The student and the downstairs wife in ecstatic copulation
Lovemaking while covered in rain and a plastic raincoat
This review is my contribution to the Production Design Blog-a-Thon at Too Many Projects Film Club.