Cops and robbers: The battle for Manila
Alfredo Lim believes in Dirty Harry. He almost believes he is Dirty Harry, only his Dirty Harry is not Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, but Alfredo Lim’s Dirty Harry.
The Dirty Harry that Alfredo Lim knows is a hero. He is a good cop. He is a strong cop. He is a cop who will follow the letter of the law but will make no compromises and deal with no criminals. He will do what has to be done because the law says it has to be done.
“You may have the impression,” says the Mayor of Manila, “That by Dirty Harry we mean I do dirty things. No, that’s not true.”
The Harry Callahan the world knows, immortalized in Blu-ray DVDs sold for US$32.30 a box on Amazon.com, is a man who will smash his foot into the bullet-mangled leg of a suspect screaming for a lawyer in the middle of Kezar Stadium. This is a Dirty Harry who will do dirty things, a man who will kill without compunction, conduct searches without probable cause, ignore warrants, withhold Miranda rights, and continue to be surprised in sequel after sequel whenever he is on the receiving end of a lecture from the judge forced to let off criminals because Harry has again broken procedure.
Will the real Dirty Harry please stand up?
Unlike even the die-hard fans of the tweed-suited detective who will ask suspects to go ahead and make his day from behind a .45 Remington Magnum—“the most powerful handgun in the world”—Alfredo Lim believes in Dirty Harry in a way nobody else believes in Dirty Harry, perhaps because Alfredo Lim believes Harry Callahan is real. Not the real thing, but real, a real person, a San Francisco cop with a birthday, a middle initial, and a father whose name is not necessarily a creation of scriptwriter Harry Julian’s.
That Detective Inspector Harry Callahan was a fictionalized character whose story is the sum of several rewritings of a character originally written for John Wayne, that his traits and foibles are an amalgamation of parts grafted from a number of people including Clint Eastwood himself, and that his alleged victories are based on cases that have never been solved perhaps escapes the mayor’s notice.
In the world of Alfredo S. Lim, good cop extraordinaire, in the absence of a real Dirty Harry, like God, it is necessary to create him. “And that was the life of Inspector Callahan, who was popularized by Clint Eastwood,” says Mayor Lim in an interview with Rappler, “along with all his numerous apprehensions of criminals.”
“Maybe that’s where the similarity is,” he says. “Because I stayed in the detective bureau for about 15 years. All the aspects of police work in the detective bureau. Homicide, theft and robbery, intelligence, arson, anti-hoodlum unit. With all the criminals we apprehend maybe it can be said I was one of those called persistent in the implementation of the law.”
It is then necessary to see the battle for the mayoralty of Manila through the lens of a narrative that Manila itself has come to accept, a narrative Lim has told four different times in theaters across the nation.
His city, he says, is a town of good, upstanding citizens, patriots all, victimized by the evils of criminals who flooded the city in the twilight of World War II. The true Manileños are his constituency, to be served and protected from drug-toting gun-running punks by the meanest sonofabitch cop this side of Tondo.
This is the Manila that has elected and reelected Dirty Harry, that welcomes his horse-drawn carriage as it trundles across intersections with the mayor himself pitching T-shirts to construction workers from under the shadow of a loyal assistant’s umbrella. He has knocked on doors and walked down narrow alleys. He knows his city, and his city knows him. He says people run at the sound of his convoy approaching, in the hope of seeing him pass. Some are women, he says, wet from baths and wrapped in towels. Some of them wave at him from second floor windows, some ask him to wait while they rush down.
All of this proves, he says, that he will win.
Enter Asiong Salonga
Yet for the first time in a very long time, Manila has been presented with an alternative to the legend of Dirty Harry. This is no longer a pedestrian challenge against the flower-shirted erstwhile Mayor Lito Atienza, whose grinning mermaids along the Baywalk were demolished the moment he was ejected from city hall.
“Asiong Salonga rose in the north,” howls Estrada’s vice mayor Isko Moreno to cheering crowds. “He will not let Dirty Harry walk away! He will beat him to the ground! He will be beaten even before he pulls out his gun!”
This is Asiong Salonga, whose almost mythical fame as cinema’s King of Tondo won Joseph Ejercito Estrada 11 million votes in 1998 in a landslide victory for the presidency of the republic.
Lim is not threatened. “The character he depicts is a notorious criminal from Tondo,” he says.
“Films should inspire the youth by telling the stories of heroes, like Andres Bonifacio, or Jose Rizal, or Emilio Aguinaldo.” Or, it can be added, about Alfredo Lim.
“My movie was a box office hit,” answers Estrada. “Lim’s two films about his life showed in empty theaters where only flies watched the screening. Asiong Salonga is stronger.”
Joseph Estrada may not need to tout Salonga the same way Lim clings to Dirty Harry—half a century in cinema took care of that—but he has no qualms recreating the dangerous Salonga to his image and likeness. It does not matter that the Asiong Salonga of Estrada’s 1961 film was the kingpin of Manila, jailed thrice, escaped twice, whose long-time mistress watched from afar as Salonga’s wife wept over her bleeding gut-shot husband. Salonga is a killer, godfather of the slums, who murdered over territory and shot men in cold blood.
Estrada's Salonga may be a hoodlum from Tondo, but he is a hoodlum who lives in the public’s collective consciousness as a modern day Robin Hood, a man who stole from the rich to feed the poor.
Under the neon lights
“It was here in Manila where I became known as an actor," says Estrada. "My first big film is about life in Manila. It was the Manileño, particularly the poor, the ones called the masses, that first appreciated my films and allowed me my victory in the industry.”
Estrada’s political bailiwick is San Juan, but he emphasizes less his success as San Juan mayor, and more his roots as a celebrity whose fame rose from the slums of Manila.
It is Asiong Salonga who is running for the mayoralty here. Estrada describes a different Manila, not Lim’s golden city of glowing hospitals and high-rise buildings, but a cesspit of thieves and gangsters. He talks of rising crime rates and unemployment, about a city fallen into decay. The Manila he describes is the city of hundred-peso blowjobs that can be bought under the neon lights of Ermita, along with pirated DVDs that may or may not include Alfredo Lim’s own biopic, a city where a tourist on vacation can be killed inside a bus in broad daylight by a disgraced MPD cop.
This is the Manila that Asiong Salonga says only he can save. He welcomes all constituents, criminals and beggars, the ambitious and the oppressed. He is one of them, understands them, is as much a victim of the oppressive elite as the people themselves. “Hungry stomach,” he repeats, “knows no law."
That the debate has come down to whose film sold more tickets is a concession to the real discourse underplaying the 2013 mayoralty campaign—an attempt to destroy image more than substance.
In the film reel playing in Lim’s head, Estrada is cast as the criminal, the thief, the living, breathing symbol of every punk Harry ever hauled into jail. The story may play well, the convicted plunderer in the stern sight of Manila’s top cop, but Estrada has recasted Lim as well, and perhaps more effectively.
It is Lim who is forced on the defensive, guarding both the illusion of his grand Manila and the hardboiled man’s man that he created out of Dirty Harry. Estrada can still play his genial gangster. There is very little left to destroy in a man who cultivates the image of a womanizing gunslinger with a taste for thievery, but an 83-year-old Lim in a faded yellow T-shirt does not inspire the imagination, certainly not to the point of fancying him chasing down crazed psychopaths between the broken lamp posts of criminal Manila.
Battle between legends
It is a disconnect that Estrada is happy to exploit, attacking Lim’s carefully constructed machismo, reducing the mayor to an impotent braggart who weeps at failure and grovels for favors, a liar and an ingrate without balls and without honor, an aging Dirty Harry who can’t shoot straight.
“He tells me he was just going to talk to his policemen,” says Erap about Lim, his interior secretary at the time of Erap’s ousting in 2001. “Then he abandons me for the Edsa rally. And then years later he comes begging to my house, crying and asking for forgiveness so he could join my party as senator.”
Lim calls Estrada a liar, Estrada calls Lim a liar, and it goes on, back and forth, an increasingly outraged Lim a ready target for the slick gangster.
“See,” says a grinning Estrada. “See, he’s weeping now.”
This is not a battle between men, it is between legends. Perhaps they are the same, the gunslinger and the gangster, both vigilantes who know that Manila is a city where a man needs to draw blood to survive. Watch the marquee; listen to the music, look under the neon lights. This is a city whose people will buy the ticket for the better hero, no matter if the star is celluloid.
Welcome to the capital of the Republic of the Philippines, where the showdown is in the imagination, and a myth will be elected mayor. - Rappler