Lee, now considered a titan of Philippine cinema, grew up as a petite, reserved and sickly young boy. Lee’s recollection of his mother was of constant pain and suffering. They moved to a relative’s house and an arbularyo was eventually called, as they believed an aswang was the root cause, but his mother never recovered. Lee was raised by relatives as his father felt incapable of taking care of him alone. His father also died when he was just 10. Thus, Lee was orphaned at an early age and literature became his refuge as he escaped isolation and loneliness through writing and reading. Lee displayed greatness, being a consistent topnotcher in his classes while continuing to develop his penchant for writing.
He eventually mustered the courage and solicited writing advice from prolific literary figures such as Nick Joaquin, Carlos Romulo and Wilfredo Guerrero by writing letters. After some responded, Lee was all the more encouraged to go to Manila to further hone his skills. After his graduation, he and some of his friends decided to move to Manila. Impoverished and homeless in the strange city, Lee and his friend took up jobs to survive. The sickly young boy now had to work 16-hour shifts to keep his dreams alive. And keep it alive, he did.
He was eventually accepted in the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman as a AB English Major. In UP, he became associated with Pen for People’s Progress, a group of activists advocating for human rights. Through the group, he became connected with notable artists such as Bienvenido Lumbera and Pete Lacaba, and he participated in activism. When Martial Law was declared in 1972, Lee and his friends went underground. To keep himself afloat, Lee would continue to write short stories, for which he received awards, publications and his first screenplay, Dragnet.
With Martial Law in full force, the government began its crackdown on activists and opposition, and in 1974, the military raided the apartment Lee and his colleagues were renting. Lee found himself in Camp Aguinaldo with five of his friends: Lumbera, Bobby Tuason, Flor Caagusan, Cesar Carlos and Jo-Ann Maglipon. He suffered greatly in detention, being beaten up, threatened and humiliated. As he was a sickly man, the toll proved worse on his body, as he constantly suffered from chest pains and coughed up blood.
More than physical, Lee was also mentally affected. He recalled being taken care of by his cellmates. “I felt so small. So useless… 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,” Lee remembered. He even felt that his writings at the time were “very mawkish and too sentimental” and that they were no good — ampapangit — he said. He was suffering physically, he felt like a burden to his friends, and he could not even find solace in his writings. His plight was so much for him that he attempted suicide by slitting his wrist. Luckily, Lumbera found him in the middle of his attempt and Lee had slit his wrist the wrong way, and he survived. Following this, Lee gathered himself, with newfound desire to live and to write, and started working on his screenplays.
When he was released, he continued working on his screenplays, which became the blockbuster films that left an imprint in the 1980s national film scene. Among them were Jaguar and Cain at Abel, directed by Lino Brocka, in 1979 and 1982, as well as Brutal and Moral, by Marilou Diaz-Abaya, in 1980 and 1982. His magnum opus Himala, directed by Ishmael Bernal and released in 1982, had political undertones, imbued with his own experiences as an activist and detainee. The underlying message of the Himala is a call to action for people to stop relying on strongmen, saviors, messiahs, or miracle workers, such as his protagonist Elsa, to solve their problems and the plagues of society. “We are activists, we are the agents leading our lives and our destiny. Our lives cannot be dependent on someone like Elsa — a savior, strongman or messiah,” Lee puts it.
Years after his ordeals, Lee’s scars still linger, as he developed an instinctive fear of seeing men in uniform and as he intermittently suffers from multiple ailments attributed to his torture. Despite his hardships, he still fondly recalls his days of activism with his colleagues, calling it the peak of his happiness. Since he began in the 1970s, Lee has remained active, writing over 150 award-winning film scripts, likewise being abundantly awarded for them, and hosting and participating in workshops to teach aspiring writers and filmmakers. He believes that the message of Himala is still relevant today, if not more so. He also continues to highlight the significance of the arts as a medium of resistance to oppression. He is recognized today as one of the motu proprio victims of Martial Law.
Lee, Ricardo. “Rappler Talk Entertainment: Ricky Lee on taking ‘Himala’ from screen to stage.” By Amanda Lago. September 20, 2019. Accessed May 7, 2021. https://youtu.be/TnpyaYaiL7E.
Pineda, Ma. Luisa. “Sa panulat ni – Ricky Lee and writing in the film industry.” Tinig ng Plaridel. August 26, 2015. Accessed May 7, 2021. https://www.tinigngplaridel.net/features/2015/sa-panulat-ni-ricky-lee-and-writing-in-the-film-industry.
Rappler. “For Ricky Lee, ‘Himala’ the film he wrote during Martial Law, still relevant today.” Rappler. September 21, 2019. Accessed May 7, 2021. https://www.rappler.com/entertainment/movies/ricky-lee-himala-martial-law-era-relevant.
Rappler.com. (2019, September 21). For Ricky Lee, ‘Himala,’ the film he wrote during Martial Law, still relevant today. Rappler. https://www.rappler.com/entertainment/movies/ricky-lee-himala-martial-law-era-relevant?fbclid=IwAR2QHH9Kn7kZVp_JTKErlCVyMCb1ATZD7pZDEUgLyYmLF0TSxT2eilu8htY.
“Ricardo Lee.” UP Film Institute. Accessed May 7, 2021.https://filminstitute.upd.edu.ph/ricky.
Velarde, Emmie G. “Screenwriter Ricky Lee lived 3 lives in detention.” Philippine Daily Inquirer. September 22, 2014. Accessed May 7, 2021. https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/639739/screenwriter-ricky-lee-lived-3-lives-in-detention.
Villaluna, Paolo. “Film Writer Ricky Lee Is a Giant in Philippine Cinema.” Esquire. October 2, 2019. Accessed May 7, 2021. https://www.esquiremag.ph/long-reads/profiles/ricky-lee-interview-a2413-20191002-lfrm5.
Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, May 27). Ricky Lee. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ricky_Lee?fbclid=IwAR35hTZWk1OqOe5t7u1_szgRaRuKZzeDEdG7vR_JfUqiia0IoRqWHdGOMFE.
 Paolo Villaluna, “Film Writer Ricky Lee Is a Giant in Philippine Cinema,” Esquire, October 2, 2019, accessed May 7, 2021. https://www.esquiremag.ph/long-reads/profiles/ricky-lee-interview-a2413-20191002-lfrm5. Though he was never able to confirm it himself, Lee believes his mother likely died of stomach cancer.
 Ma. Luisa Pineda, “Sa panulat ni – Ricky Lee and writing in the film industry,” Tinig ng Plaridel, August 26, 2015, accessed May 7, 2021, https://www.tinigngplaridel.net/features/2015/sa-panulat-ni-ricky-lee-and-writing-in-the-film-industry.
 Villaluna, “Film Writer Ricky Lee.”
 Pineda, “Sa panulat ni – Ricky Lee.” He submitted works to publications, such as the Philippines Free Press, the Filipino Free Press and the Asia Philippines Leader, to earn money, but this also marked the start of Lee making a name for himself.
 Villaluna, “Film Writer Ricky Lee.” Lee published “Dragnet” under the pseudonym of R.H. Laurel.
 Emmie G. Velarde, “Screenwriter Ricky Lee lived 3 lives in detention,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 22, 2014, accessed May 7, 2021. https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/639739/screenwriter-ricky-lee-lived-3-lives-in-detention.
 Villaluna, “Film Writer Ricky Lee Is a Giant in Philippine Cinema.”
 Ibid.; Rappler, “For Ricky Lee, ‘Himala’ the film he wrote during Martial Law, still relevant today,” Rappler, September 21, 2019, accessed May 7, 2021. https://www.rappler.com/entertainment/movies/ricky-lee-himala-martial-law-era-relevant.
 Rappler, “For Ricky Lee.”
 Ricardo Lee, “Rappler Talk Entertainment: Ricky Lee on taking ‘Himala’ from screen to stage,” by Amanda Lago, September 20, 2019, accessed May 7, 2021, https://youtu.be/TnpyaYaiL7E. Original in Filipino: Aktibista tayo sa bawat isa, tayo ang agent ng ating buhay at ng ating kapalaran… Hindi natin pwedeng iasa sa tulad ni Elsa — savior, strongman or messiah — ang ating buhay.
 Velarde, “Screenwriter Ricky Lee.”
 “Ricardo Lee,” UP Film Institute, accessed May 7, 2021,https://filminstitute.upd.edu.ph/ricky.
“That is one sad development I keep hearing about [the youth today]. No consciousness about [Martial Law], how it was during those dark years,” laments Rene Saguisag about the perception of Martial Law today. “For one to take part in an electoral process in a dictatorship is to help forge the links in your own chains,” he also warns of the dangers of complicity of the citizenry amid tyranny.
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