When Does Pornography Become Art?

It’s curious that one of the most enduring classics of Philippine cinema is Peque Gallaga’s Scorpio Nights, a 1985 softcore porn flick disguised as a cautionary tale against voyeurism. It’s not the first of its kind; right around the time it premiered, pene and bomba movies were already popular. So what elevated Scorpio Nights to opus status? The answer could be art.

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Scorpio Nights tells the story of Danny, a student who spies on his married neighbors having sex from his room upstairs. He starts a sexual relationship with the wife while her husband is at work as a security guard, and the two become so consumed by their passion that it eventually becomes their undoing. As one character in the film wisely told Danny, “Baka ikaw malason ng kamandag mo” (You might be poisoned by your own lust).

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Scorpio Nights (1)

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Unlike other films of its kind, sex only plays a secondary role even if the story revolves around it. Here, the focus is on the illicit lovers’ ferocious appetite and its dangers. The sex scenes move the story forward and aren’t gratuitous. Even the way they were shot were artistic, from the scene under the pink mosquito net to the one inside a raincoat. My favorite would have to be the scene where Danny puts down his hand from the ceiling and the wife hungrily devours it.

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Despite the many frontals (including one erect penis), Scorpio Nights is seductive because of its restraint. Daniel’s first encounter with the wife was an excellent scene. The way he shuffled towards the bed, lifted the mosquito net, slid the wife’s shirt up to reveal her vagina and the rest of her naked flesh was brilliant. It’s similar to the way a good lover would make love: slowly, gently, teasingly. I watched with bated breath and was surprised I didn’t orgasm from the tension. Only the last sexual deed was frantic, but only because it led to the terrifying climax.

Erotica has existed for many, many years. Compared to outright pornography, its calling card is elegance. And even if the setting is a rundown tenement (which production designer Don Escudero built from scratch), with sweaty half-naked men playing basketball or drinking cheap beer, there is a sense of sophistication to the film. When it comes to sex, it’s either titillating or exquisite. Scorpio Nights manages to be both.

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