It was a steamy evening, punctuated by thunderstorms. Destitute figures, clad in rags, slept under the remote porticoes of the government's Manila Film Center. Out front, hundreds of the more fortunate paid 35 pesos (about $1.75) to get in, more than four times the going ticket price at privately owned movie theaters. Soldiers stood on guard against possible terrorist attack.

Inside, dozens of formally dressed cine'astes, civic leaders and members of the press heaped Philippine delicacies on their plates from a lavish buffet. Nervous anticipation charged the air -- tonight's event was the hottest ticket in town.

The crowd had come for the premiere of "Scorpio Nights," an erotic thriller about a young man's adulterous affair with a nubile neighbor. It would break boundaries here in terms of explicit sex: Graphic sequences of lovemaking culminate with a scene of simultaneous orgasm and death -- footage that would earn the movie a quick X rating in the United States.

By morning, "Scorpio Nights" would be the talk of Manila, on its way to becoming a box-office smash.

The most notorious Philippine movie of 1985 would eventually gross 8 million pesos (about $500,000 at the time) -- shown exclusively in a film center conceived by the Philippines' First Lady Imelda Marcos, funded by the government of President Ferdinand E. Marcos and run initially by their daughter Imee.

In this politically oppressed and economically bleak country, such cultural contradictions seem absurdly logical.

"The film center makes its money off the sex movies so it can show the good ones," says director Tikoy Aguiluz, whose sexually charged (and critically praised) "Boatman" was a big hit at the center. "It's like the mother who sells her daughter on the street so the next child can go to the university. It is crazy -- but it's the Philippines."

Cinema here mirrors the chaos and cultural schizophrenia endemic to this former U.S. possession of 7,000 islands, 50 million people, a $26 billion foreign debt and a government flirting with political disaster.

Although Marcos is said to have little personal interest in movies, his wife considers herself both a patron of the arts and a cultural "protector of the children." So while child prostitution, corruption and political murder flourish, government censors -- recently replaced by a ratings board -- do their best to keep messages of protest or reform off the screen. Most of the 150 or so movies made here each year fall into the exploitation genre, shot for $100,000 to $200,000, full of bloody violence and machismo or lots of heated clutching and soapy melodrama.

But a handful of more serious filmmakers struggle to make movies with some social consciousness, or at least some social realism.

"We have been given police powers," says the grandmotherly Maria Kalaw Katigbak, who chaired the recently dismantled board of censors. "We have a team of police soldiers who get authority from me to confiscate films and close theaters." Although the board had once been preoccupied with sexual content, Kalaw said, "Now, we have the problem with the movies that are the propaganda against the government. We have to be firm in interpreting what is subversive and what is not."

Late last year, Marcos declared that he had "abolished" both censorship and the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), the government agency that administrated the Manila Film Center.

Created as a sanctuary for filmmakers from the government's own censorship laws, the ECP generated widespread controversy when it began exhibiting the most sexually explicit films ever seen in the Philippines.

Marcos replaced the ECP with the Film Development Foundation of the Philippines (FDFP) to "pave the way for the establishment of a foundation aimed at encouraging private-sector participation in the movie industry and the uplifting of the people's esthetic values." It operates with the same staff in the same offices as did the ECP.

At the same time, Marcos replaced the board of censors with the Movie and Television Classification and Review Board, a mix of 125 film industry representatives and 15 prominent citizens that will ostensibly classify movies but not censor them.

But a local film industry reporter contends that members of the new ratings board "are the same dog with a different color. They are still cutting film. They want to make it appear that they are only classifying films, but by giving an X, they can keep a film from being shown commercially. The board controls the creative process." The censors, he says, have always been "less concerned about sex. Sex entertains the people. What they are really worried about are political themes, because they might raise the consciousness of the people."

The showing of sexually oriented films at the Manila Film Center stopped shortly before Marcos announced the new election.

The six-level, state-of-the-art Manila Film Center (which one official estimates cost about 53 million pesos) has become a target of populist scorn, as did the ostentatious Manila International Film Festival it was built to house (the festival was abandoned in 1983 after two years). Like the nearby Manila Cultural Center, another pet project of the first lady's, the film center is built on land reclaimed from the sea, which makes it appear to some even more symbolic of the shaky Marcos regime.

"The people are beginning to get angry," about "pornography" at the center, said the matronly Kalaw, before the ECP sanitized its program. "And they are blaming the first lady, the poor woman."

While the Catholic Women's League expressed outrage over sexually oriented films at the center, members of the political opposition raised issues of cost, waste, questionable accounting and class privilege.

John J. Litton, deputy secretary general of ECP, heads the new FDFP. The Manila film festival has been abandoned, but Litton manages to stage retrospectives and an annual local festival. The center holds film classes and school tours. Facilities are rented for weddings, awards shows and other private events to bring in extra revenue.

"To be very candid," says Litton, "it's still too early to say whether the Manila Film Center was a good or bad decision."

Several ECP-financed productions, all nonerotic, have largely been commercial failures. Without erotic attractions, some claim, Imelda Marcos will never be able to pay for her expensive white elephant.

One hears assertions in Manila film circles that Litton requires a quota of sex scenes be put in -- while touchy political content be kept out ("Film must be free," he said, "but you can't have propaganda").

Director Lino Brocka has long boycotted the ECP since the first Manila film festival, claiming it "legitimizes pornography." The issue, he said, is not esthetics. "I have nothing against sex films. The issue is that when the film center was built and the ECP was organized, it was to be for the encouragement of serious Filipino cinematic art . . . We didn't know it was going to be used like it has been. The word is mockery, and they do it so blatantly."

Brocka claims that after the ECP broke barriers two years ago with "Isla," featuring nudity and sex and starring a former Miss Philippines, producers came to him "with cash to make skin flicks for the film center." A round-faced, mild-mannered man, Brocka has made about 50 films since 1970, the first Filipino director to have his work shown at the Cannes Film Festival (three times altogether). In recent years, his trademark has been the socially conscious melodrama.

"Bayan Ko," made in 1984 but held up until last fall by the censors, portrays a poor laborer who refuses to join a union strike because he needs the wages to pay his wife's hospital bills. The censors demanded cuts Brocka refused to make, including scenes of anti-Marcos demonstrations. When "Bayan Ko" was finally distributed Nov. 6 -- with an R rating by the new board -- it fared poorly at the box office.

Brocka blames the socially conscious content of his films for his arrest by the government last January. He was detained after a rally of striking jeepney (small bus or taxi) drivers and charged with illegal assembly and inciting to sedition (strikes here are virtually forbidden).

"They only did it because I made the films," Brocka said. "It's their way of harassment."

At first a director of comedies, Brocka's politicization began when Marcos declared martial law in 1972. It was "private and individual commitment" that became more outspoken with the assassination of democratic opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr. at the Manila airport on Aug. 21, 1983. "That was the turning point for a lot of people. It shocked the country. The moderates, the silent, the indifferent were so shocked, it brought us together."

Now free on bail, Brocka faces years in prison if he's found guilty, and has been effectively silenced as a filmmaker.

"The films I became famous for touched on certain social realities -- the slums, low wages and working conditions, certain problems the government is touchy about. Films that the first lady particularly does not like. They go against what she calls the good, the true and the beautiful."

Tikoy Aguiluz, a stocky, outgoing film buff, founded the cinema department at the University of the Philippines and made documentaries before "Boatman." Since the film's success, he has signed to direct three more low-budget pictures in his home country.

Although he speaks with an artist's vision, he confesses to being "a B-movie freak."

"The best of our movies are a weird combination of Italian realism and Roger Corman," Aguiluz said over bottles of San Miquel beer in a Chinese cafe' not far from Manila's notorious Red District. "We grew up on a diet of B movies. So there's no escape from sex and violence. The audience wants and maybe even needs the sex and violence. As I made 'Boatman,' I even felt myself falling into the exploitation trap. I hope it rises above that, but I could still feel that mentality taking over.

"When I decided to make it, I knew it would lead to problems with the censors . But the worst problem was self-censorship -- you find yourself censoring your own work, which is the most dangerous thing for an artist. It's hard enough just to make a movie without having to deal with the censorship problem."

Outwardly apolitical, Aguiluz said he would be content making movies that are pure entertainment, but finds it difficult.

"It's the curse of every Third World filmmaker that these social issues automatically crop up. It's good and it's bad. It's like feminist filmmakers -- they have to take a stand, deal with the issue. I've only made one movie, yet I feel this curse, this burden.

"But how can you make a film in the Philippines and not deal with the social problems?"