Saturday, May 24, 2008

Scorpio Nights (1985)

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.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous Good Side:

Kawawa naman ito, naka-100 comments na sa kabila, wala pa dito

Noel Vera said...

Good stuff, oggs.

This is the closest Gallaga ever got to a Brocka film, and to his credit, it only takes off from Brocka's sensibility and becomes unmistakably his own work.

Uncredited in all this is the production designer, who reportedly came up with the idea for the film.

Not a small matter. The premise is so strong it molds Gallaga's usually shoddy storytelling, turns Gallaga's shapelessness from vice into virtue. This may be the only Gallaga film I really like.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thank you Noel,

Storytelling is probably the weakest point of most production designer-turned-director. Brillante Mendoza has similar problems.

I Complain said...

Your use of the word "fucking" in your review is truly telling of what the film is.

I haven't kept up with your blog one hundred percent but is this the first time you've included several screen shots? I'm still trying to figure out why?

Oggs Cruz said...

Did I say "fucking?" I was trying my best to refrain from uttering the F word, hehe.

It's not the first time I included several screen shots (I also did it Death in the Land of Encantos). I might start doing so, since I'm reviewing less and less now.

Noel Vera said...

You're teling me. I hate designers turned directors. Think Mel Chionglo, Don Escudero, Joel fucking Schumacher for Christ's sake.

Writers turned directors--well, okay. Billy Wilder, Joey Reyes. I believe in editors turned directors, though--Stuart Baird comes to mind, same with uh Ike Jarlego. Well, I do like Preston Sturges.

Some cinematographers become great directors, not many. Mike De Leon (if he meant to start out as cinematographer--I'm not sure about that).

Actors turned directors I'm not a fan of. Well some--Orson Welles, Mario O'Hara, Buster Keaton.

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey Jeturian did PD jobs before shifting to directing.

- ed saludes

Unknown said...

The Korean remake doesn't hold on this one. Saw the uncut SCORPIO NIGHTS in the late 90's at Greenbelt Cinema when Peque was still part of Director's Guild before he resigned from the group. Its probably the best erotic film the 2nd Golden Age of Philippine Cinema churned out and its worth one hell of a ride, arousing, shocking and the technical craftmanship is simply outstanding.

Noel Vera said...

Course I'm pissing around with generalities. There are exceptions, and Jeffrey's one of them.

Charles Laughton's a great actor, but the one time he directed a film it's Night of the Hunter. David Ehrenstein considers it the greatest American film ever made, and while I don't quite agree, I do consider it up there.

Whatsisname, Barry Sonnenfeld was the cinematographer of the Coen brothers. He's done crap as director. Jan de Bont lensed early Verhoeven; when he directed, Speed wasn't bad, everything else was crap.

Jean Cocteau was a poet. Julian Schnabel was a painter. Kubrick was a photographer. George Miller was an MD.

Orson Welles--well, it's hard to consider him an actor before he directed Kane--Welles was practically doing everything else, writing, directing, acting, designing in theater and radio before he went into film.

Anonymous said...

Orson Welles--well, it's hard to consider him an actor before he directed Kane--Welles was practically doing everything else, writing, directing, acting, designing in theater and radio before he went into film.


- ed saludes

Noel Vera said...

But of course!

jasonsteele said...

I watched this movie on DVD yesterday and I love it. I was surpirsed to that Anna Marie Guttierez knows how to act. I was told by my friends that she is one lousy actress but I beg to differ. Too bad this movie doesn't have a neat remastered release (or a Criterion perhaps).

Monique Codilla Oloresisimo said...

gumawa naman po kayo ng character analysis, technical critique, and sociological relevance ng movie...thanks...