Ricky Lee in Van Laack
Lee was brought into a detention camp along with other artists. It was a source of pride, standing up for what you know to be right. After being beaten, the incarceration started to take its toll. He’d lie down for days complaining about chest pains. One day, he coughed up blood. The spot of blood on his palm was suddenly a scarlet mirror and the more he looked at it the more he despised the reflection: a little sickly boy—frail, worthless, and once again, in a prison.
Illness and depression took the best of the boy. He became contemplative of his own journey and writings. And because he was bed-ridden and ill, fellow artists in jail began taking care of him.
“Alagain na naman ako. I felt so small. So useless. I’d rant tungkol sa lipunan but instead of listening they’d give me biscuits and fruits kasi kailangan ko gumaling,” he says. An uncommon tenderness wraps around his voice as he continues, “And it’s doubly frustrating because it’s not their fault. In fact, I felt so loved and cared for, giving me what I need. Pero dahil depressed ako, I felt like all my life I’ve always been taken cared of, so parang di ko ma-validate yung worth ko.
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“Tapos lahat ng writings ko very mawkish and too sentimental. So ang papangit. And I kept writing nun [sa loob], ang papangit. Marami ako nasulat nun na puro pangit. So ang feeling ko, ano ang future ko? Saan ako pupunta? Ano mangyayari sa gusto ko? Sakitin ako, burden sa kanila at the same time yung worth ko sa pagsusulat parang ang papangit.
“I had to take control. I felt like I had no control over my life. Nakakulong ako, di ko alammangyayari. Inaalagaan nilaako, may sakitako. I was coughing blood. And I couldn’t write. I had no control eh. So I wanted to take control.”
So the sickly thin boy from Bicol decided to take control of his life: He found himself a blade and slit his wrists.
He survived and woke up in the hospital.
“After doing it, ‘Ay, mabuti vertical ang hiwa, kasi kung horizontal, delikado.’ Humarap ako sa dingding and I started crying, sabi ko, pati ba naman dito I'm so clumsy I can’t even do it right,” he concludes in a tone that is distinctly whimsical.
The suicide attempt woke him up soulfully.
After a year, as part of a Christmas package, the Marcos government decided to free 50 political prisoners including Ricky Lee and Bienvenido Lumbera. They were just thrown out on the streets.
He wanted to put his life on track again. Through his best friend Gil Quito, he boarded with fellow writer Doy Del Mundo. The barkada would go to Alliance-Francais, Goethe Institut and obscure theaters in Binondo to watch foreign films and he discovered Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman and Kurosawa. He’d devour film books. Inside the church of cinema, he fell in love with films and found a new devotion. He is a writer. In the form of the huge screen where stories can be told, he found his new Quiapo.
He co-wrote Itim (De Leon ’77) with Quito and Del Mundo. He met Gil Portes and wrote Pagonggahan (Portes ’79). He co-wrote Jaguar (Brocka ’79) with Lacaba. Marilou Diaz-Abaya wanted to get him after watching Jaguar and he wrote Brutal (Abaya ’80). He was the script consultant for Manila By Night (Bernal ’80). And one day, Quito went home to find pieces of script littered all over the floor and Lee intently doing revisions. The title of the script was Himala (Bernal ’82).
In a span of five small years, Lee gave Philippine Cinema a much-needed injection in the arm.