Feature by: Tiffany Limsico
From Amir Muhammad
Dear Ricky Lee,
Hello there! We've never met but we spoke on the phone two years ago. I was in the claws of neon then, in a car with two Filipinos who worked peripherally in film. It was around midnight; the macho dancers were still oiling up as we spoke.
I mentioned to my hosts that I'd always wanted to meet Ricky Lee. And one of them said, "I have his number!" And before I knew what was happening, I found an active mobile phone thrust to my face, with you on the other side. It was too late to meet up; you probably didn't even know who I was! And I was going back to Malaysia the next day. And you said that it's such a pity, it was sayang(1). But that you would drop off some DVDs for me at my hotel.
So imagine my surprise when the next morning I did indeed find a bulky brown envelope filled with about a dozen of your DVDs, as well as an autographed copy of your screenwriting book.
(Why was I surprised? Because film people always make airy promises they don't keep; it's part of their discreet charm!)
I first really noticed your name when I was nearing the end of my six month residency in Tokyo. It was December 2003 and almost all the people I knew in the city had gone away on vacation. I found myself going to the video resource room of the Japan Foundation(2) and watching Filipino films, every single day. Some of them had only Japanese subtitles (a language I still didn't know) but I didn't mind. They had many titles from the ‘70s to the ‘90s and several had your name on them. (Sometimes it was spelled Ricardo Lee, sometimes Rick Lee). I would watch these videos (on VHS!) until closing time.
What I got from those films was that they looked and sounded like the Malay films from those decades, but they were clever. I even said this revelation out loud, in Malay: "Macam filem Melayu, tapi pandai!"(3) Of course, even if there had been other people in the resource room, no one would have understood me.
According to IMDB you have written 126 films. I am sure I have seen at least a fifth of them. Sometimes I lose track of the titles, so I can't be entirely certain.
Why did I like what I saw? Firstly, through the similarities of language sound and landscape, they reminded me of home. Tokyo was getting miserable then; the air was like a malevolent wet noodle. Much less personally or sentimentally, I actually love the confident construction of your films. They had a neatness and rigor that reminded me of American cinema of the 1940s.
Don't take this the wrong way, but I especially love the fact that some of those films seemed obviously written for money: the unadorned corniness, the sometimes formulaic plot twists, these were things I cherished. How can one be a good writer if one isn't first a busy writer? And as the much less inspired writer for the screen F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: "Work is the only dignity."
My favourite of your films is probably Himala. I hosted a screening of it in Kuala Lumpur a few weeks ago. Most of the 40 or so people who came were really enthusiastic about it. But there was a bunch of American college students who seemed quite restless. I was quite annoyed at them. I was already feeling quite protective of the film in some silly way.
So there you have it. We all know screenwriting doesn't get much credit but your career has been longer and richer than most of the directors and cast you have worked with. You’d probably be a much more fun dinner companion, too! Because, at the end of the day, it’s all about the stories we can tell.
1. This word means ‘pity’ in both Tagalog and Malay. But in Malay it has the added meaning of ‘love.’
2. This facility has since closed, a victim of budget cuts. I hope all those videos are still being preserved somewhere. But then again, sometimes decay and loss have their own beauty, don't you think?
3. This sentence construction isn't an idiom, but I was startled when Yasmin Ahmad said something very similar to me years later, referring to Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder: "Macam The Silence of the Lambs, tapi pandai!"
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