On Assignment: A party with Master Ricky

THE WANDERING I - Irish Christianne Dizon - The Philippine Star

There is a house with a green gate somewhere in Quezon City, where cats and dogs roam freely and humans are encouraged to think and imagine and be. On this particular night, the garden of this house was dotted with tables, rocked by the chatter of guests, and filled with food. There was dinuguan, Filipino-style spaghetti, pancit, fried chicken, lumpia, ube cake, and more — a diverse buffet for a diverse set of people.

Palanca Award winner Brylle Tabora played with one of the beautiful felines, while Giancarlo Abrahan, screenplay writer of critically acclaimed films Dagitab, Transit, and I’m Drunk I Love You, smoked and laughed with/at someone. I overheared somebody whisper that Piolo Pascual was spotted outside the gate. And there, seated at the table near the back wall, was a very literary, very brave quartet: National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera, Yes! magazine and Pep.ph editor-in-chief Jo-Ann Maglipon, independent editor/writer Flor Caagusan, and activist Cesar Carlos.

This amazing cast of characters was gathered here to celebrate the birthday of a singular man: Ricky Lee, the revered screenwriter and novelist, and, to many of those in attendance, beloved teacher. I first met Ricky last year. In 2016, after 14 long years, he decided to resume giving free workshops in his home. Out of 5,000 who applied, only 95 made the cut — and I went on to become a prodigal student. (But that's another story for another time.)

Ricky wore a light blue polo shirt and khakis, his bespectacled face serene, that inwrought Buddha energy calm and calming as always. He insisted that I eat before we did  the one-on-one interview. He had to see his Batas Militar comrades to the door. He had to go around and make sure the guests were having a good time. So I ate. And I waited. And when a living legend tells you to wait, you wait.

Two deaths and a Boy

While the name Ricky Lee can trigger intense fangirl/fanboy emotions in a few people, most Filipinos know him for his works: The iconic movie Himala by Ishmael Bernal (just one of the 150 or so titles in his significant filmography), the cult classic book Para kay B (just one of his three novels), and the definitive Filipino screenwriting manual Trip to Quiapo. He has won awards, too many to mention here, and he has the respect and the ear of the powerful in the Philippine film industry. A quick Google search will tell you he’s a luminary, but we’re here tonight to get to know how a small-town boy named Ricky became who he us. And so on the night of his birthday, we ask him to take us back to page 1.

* * *

For the Chinese, four is seen as an unlucky number because it sounds just like their word for “death.” But in Lee’s case, five is the killer: He was five when his Filipino mother, Clarita, died, and he was in 5th grade when his Chinese father, Dy Hian Chin, passed away. 

Rumor was that an aswang, a manananggal, chased his mother relentlessly from town to town in Daet, Camarines Norte. “Pero years later, I think [it was] cancer of the stomach. So parang unfair naman sa mga manananggal kaya I did Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata [his second novel, where the manananggal has a pre-ordained responsibility to save the Philippines],” he says, that signature dry humor making me and director Maricel Cabrera-Cariaga, one of his workshop students, giggle. As for his father’s death, rumor was he was killed by a different kind of monster: “Ang talk eh nung nag asawa siya uli, inapi nung second wife kaya siya namatay nang maaga.”

When Clarita died, Dy Hian Chin decided to give up his kids for adoption (“I think hindi niya kayang magpalaki sa amin,” the writer theorizes), and his aunt, his late wife’s sister, took Ricky in. “Sa tindahan ng alak, sa sari-sari store, that’s where I grew up.” In that new home, his life-long love affair with literature would begin. Ricky learned to appreciate the printed word, thanks to a kind neighbor who read komiks to him: “Fascinated na ako sa words at sa mga istorya.”

The Escapist

While he insists his adoptive family was nice to him, he doesn’t deny that, “There were sad things, there were sad circumstances.” Lee remembers being deeply unhappy and feeling profoundly unfulfilled in their small corner of the world. “I wanted to be somebody. I felt that I had so many dreams na gusto kong matupad at hindi matupad-tupad. Nagka-feeling ako na parang ang liit liit ng lugar, ng mundo, sa bahay na ’to, sa town na ’to, and eventually, layas ako nang layas. Lahat ng paraan ng paglalayas: pagbabasa, literal na paglalayas, ginagawa ko.” (He stayed at the house of the chief of police for two days, one time. On another occasion, he spent a night at a church.)

I asked him if he felt like Belle in Beauty & the Beast, and he laughed, agreeing. “Yeah, oo. Kaya ako basa nang basa ng libro, panood ako ng panood ng sine.” (The first book that left a mark on him was that Russian doorstopper Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. He read it when he was in sixth grade, and again, when he was a high school freshman. His English teacher, Mrs. Polidario, then taking up her masters at a nearby university, even asked Ricky to write a book report about it for her. “Ako ang sumulat para sa kanya dun. Hindi ko sinasabing mahusay ako. But I must have loved the book so much na kaya kong magsulat ng report para sa teacher ko.”)

Two weeks before his high school graduation, Ricky would finally escape that house for good. There was an incident at the store; he made a mistake, one that would, in hindsight, be his ticket out of Daet and into the captivating but chaotic streets of Manila. With four of his classmates, P50 in his wallet (money he won when the Filipino Free Press published his short story called Mayon. “I think natanggap kasi may inilakip akong letter na nakakaawa, na orphan ako at nangangarap ako, na gusto kong magsulat. So I think naawa yung editor, si Ben Medina,” Ricky recalls.), and packs of tuyo from one of his favorite teachers, he boarded a bus and never looked back.

Becoming Ricky Lee

In Manila, he became a waiter at Di’Mark’s Pizza in Menlo Park, then a high-school level accounting clerk working alongside legit accountants at Avemark factory. (It’s an out-of-character career interlude for a man who hates counting. “Actually, hindi naman ako pala kwentang tao eh, in so many aspects. I don’t count. Pag nagbigay ako, hindi ko kinukwenta; pag kumuha ako hindi ko rin kinukwenta.”)

Later, he became a working student, taking up journalism at Lyceum for a semester, only to leave the school after a dangerous fainting spell. Rumor of Ricky fainting on the road because he was too poor to eat dinner would reach Daet — and two paternal uncles would step in to help. With some financial aid, “hindi siya enough pero at least meron,” Ricky was able to afford to leave his factory job and enroll at the University of the Philippines and take up AB English (“Kasi I wanted to be a writer. Ang feeling ko, to be a writer, you have to write in English. Yung first short story ko, English ko yun sinulat, trinanslate ko lang sa Tagalog kasi Tagalog yung hinahanap.” But that was then. All of his novels are in Filipino.)

Ricky never stopped working. He became a student assistant, a Math and English tutor for Chinese kids in Binondo, and eventually, a staff member of Asia-Philippines Leader, edited by Nick Joaquin. He never got around to finishing his degree because martial law happened, and Ricky, along with his aforementioned guests, Bienvenido Lumbera, Jo-Ann Maglipon, Flor Caagusan, and Cesar Carlos, went underground.

“Nagtatrabaho na ako nun. So parang hindi ako totally estudyante, half-half na ako nun,” he explains. “So nung naging aktibista ako, hindi mahirap na mag-full time underground at kalimutan pag-aaral, kalimutan yung ambisyon ko, kalimutan yung pangalan ko, kalimutan ang lahat ng dreams ko except maglingkod na lang sa sambayanan.”

After being imprisoned for a year at the Ipil Detention Center for being “subversive,” Ricky was released. His friend, the late National Artist Rolando Tinio, got him a job at a movie company where his job was, “mag-aral kung papaano gumawa ng pelikula habang gumagawa ng script for them.” His official professional life as a scriptwriter began with Lino Brocka’s Jaguar, which he co-wrote with Pete Lacaba, but actually, it wasn’t his first movie. “I had two uncredited scripts. The first was Dragnet. Underground ako nun so hindi ako nagpalagay ng pangalan. And then after that, I co wrote Itim for Mike de Leon. But that time, maarte ako eh, gusto ko first film ko, political. Sabi ko wag na muna lagay ang pangalan ko. Nagsisi siyempre ako.”

From 1979 to now, Ricky Lee would help create films and TV shows that reflect what is good, what is troubling, what is hopeful about the Philippines and its people.

His favorite word

His voice cracked at one point as he attempted to condense his page-turner of a life into one sit-down interview. I asked him if he wanted water, but he said he was fine. I didn’t tell him this, but I was amazed that he was still upbeat, while I, 38 years his junior, was ready to call it a night.

He has a new book out, Kung Alam N’yo Lang, his first ever children’s book dealing with topics one wouldn’t exactly call child-friendly: the search for God, grief and insanity, martial law, and death. He finished writing it in three months, it’s the easiest book he has ever created, he says. His original plan was to finally write his third novel, a highly political one, until he chanced upon an American speaker’s talk during artist Karl Castro’s exhibit. “Sinabi niya na kung minsan masyado nating pinoprotektahan ang ating mga batang readers, ayaw nating maglagay ng mga subject matter na masyadong painful or mature o mahirap o malalim. And yet sa tunay na buhay naman, walang ganung protection. And so stories might help protect.”

At 69, Ricky Lee’s well of stories has not yet run dry — and it won’t be drying up anytime soon. Sure, he uses his life experiences for material (“Lahat ng kwento ni Lucas sa Para kay B ay totoong nangyari sa akin. Except yung Bessie love story.”), but the source is greater than himself. “The simple and real answer is hindi nauubos yung interes ko sa tao. And hindi naman nauubos ang tao sa palibot,” he ruminates. “I think, genuinely, my contradiction is, I’m really antisocial but I love people. I want to be loved by people.” He has always been unafraid of strangers, having been saved by strangers’ kindness all throughout his life. (“Hindi ako nag my mystical or what. In my life, usual experience sa akin yung kabaitan ng strangers.”) In the last five or so years, he’s made a conscious effort for his stories to communicate the need for kindness. “Ako I needed kindness all throughout life. So be kind. Gusto ko na ang story na sinusulat ko is a nagmamahal na stroke sa nagbabasa,” he says. “All these brokenhearted heroines ang kailangan lang naman nila eh yakap.”

We ended our conversation around midnight, and he left me to entertain a just-arrived guest, the director Dan Villegas. I asked people about what kindness Ricky Lee had done for them. Alpha Habon, screenplay writer of Star na si Van Damme Stallone and one of his students, tells me, “Despite knowing that it would take a toll on him, sir Ricky opened up his home, his time, and his life again to a hundred workshoppers, helping each one find his own Quiapo.”

Moira Lang, a respected screenplay writer/film producer (she co-wrote Anak with Ricky Lee), shared that she got her start in the movies because of him. At the time she submitted her application to be part of Star Cinema’s think tank, she was writing film reviews for some broadsheets. “Star almost rejected my application because they thought that film critics would not be a good fit for them,” Moira says. “But Ricky vouched for me. Ricky told them to hire me, so they did.”

 “All these brokenhearted heroines ang kailangan lang naman nila eh yakap,” I heard Ricky once say. I look up and there are no stars out tonight. I walk up to sir Ricky to say goodbye and he hugs me. He smells like soap and friendship and hope.

This moment is kindness. This moment is my favorite Ricky Lee story.


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