MANILA -- Up-to-the-minute news summary: Hundreds of villagers flee as college-professor-turned-guerrilla threatens war in the South; sugar planters stockpile heavy weapons to battle government over land reform; notorious gangster gunned down in police shoot-out; troops capture renegade army colonel.

Such things are reported almost daily here, and, if they sound like the stuff of action-packed adventure movies, that's because they probably will be.

In a country where art imitates life with sometimes startling speed, films touted as "the real story" or "the story behind the headlines" are rapidly emerging as the Philippines' answer to the "instant book." Often, the transition from the front page to the movie screen takes as little as two or three weeks.

And there is no shortage of source material in a country grappling with armed insurrections and breakaway rebel groups, renegade military officers, a right-wing Christian vigilante movement, private armies, a frighteningly bloody crime wave and even reports of an all-gay communist assassination squad operating out of a beauty parlor in Davao.

The film scripts are lifted whole from Manila's sensationalist daily newspapers, which gleefully chronicle every beheading, every shoot-out, every violent outrage, and the screen heroes make up a real-life rogues gallery of gangsters, thugs, communist rebels and assorted insurgent leaders with aliases like "Commander Toothpick."

The story line follows the same basic, tried-and-true formula: The idealistic young (soldier, policeman, priest) is confronted by corruption and injustice during the rule of President Ferdinand E. Marcos. He then becomes a (communist guerrilla, notorious gangster). There is a climactic (gunfight, pitched battle), and the hero is either killed or sees the error of his ways and rejoins the system.

But the genre carries special hazards of its own. There's a fair chance the real-life subject will be gunned down before the film is finished -- necessitating a quick change in the script -- and theaters showing some films have been the targets of bomb threats or angry pickets.

The phenomenon is a homespun variation on the "Death Wish" and "Dirty Harry" theme, and it is always the same because it always works. The audience knows what it wants, and filmmakers on shoestring budgets turn out dozens of such movies.

Some film experts believe the audience's insatiable appetite for the real-life adventures of rebels and thugs reflects a society gone morally haywire after 20 years of military abuse and entrenched official corruption under Marcos. Filipinos, they say, admire rebel heroes because they represent Everyman victimized by The System -- from the "jeepney" cab drivers who must pay off corrupt traffic police to the Mabini bar girls being hustled by hotel doormen.

"The Filipinos like real-life stories because they can identify with them," says noted film director Lino Brocka. "We have a lot of renegades wanted by the police, and they take the law into their own hands. It's basically the same formula as a Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood movie -- one man fighting against injustice, not necessarily within the law. There's that folk-hero type of character in it ... Because they are real characters, the movies are not fantasy here."

The latest version of truth-as-stranger-than-fiction is a film titled "Balweg, the Rebel Priest," based, of course, on Balweg, the rebel priest. Balweg is the Rev. Conrado Balweg, a priest who traded his chalice for an M16 some years ago and joined the communist New People's Army. Later, he quit the communists and formed a separate insurgent group fighting for autonomy for the mountain people of the rugged Cordillera region. He married a few times and fathered children, all the while continuing to serve Holy Communion.

Now Balweg has come in from the cold, having signed both a peace agreement with the government and a contract for the movie rights to his life -- a life very nearly cut short in an ambush that killed eight of his aides a few weeks before the film opened.

Not everyone is pleased with the rampant popularity of real-life action films. One critic is government censor Manuel L. Morato, the crusading anticommunist chairman of the Philippines' movie and television review and classification board.

Morato thinks that many of the movies may be setting the wrong example and distorting "our moral sense of values." Directors here know that for their films to be approved by Morato's censorship board, they had better make certain their rebel heroes end up either anticommunist or dead.

"When it comes to these New-People's-Army-versus-the-military films, I try to see to it that the presentation is balanced, and there should be a redeeming value in the end," Morato said in a recent interview. The Balweg movie passed the test, he said, because the rebel priest eventually breaks from the communist NPA to wage his own personal fight for land and autonomy in his native Cordillera region. "Those are messages we need right now," he said.

Others have attacked the quickie films on grounds that they distort history. Reviewer Tom Cruz, writing in the Philippine Star, argued that the purpose of movies generally should be to draw universal truths from fiction, whereas Philippine moviemakers "seem bent on reversing this artistic precept. They would rather fictionalize truth, and change its face to suit a need."

Still, filmmakers keep churning out romanticized real-life adventures as fast as the nation can produce gangsters and guerrillas.

Many are older stories that can only now be put on film as part of the country's post-Marcos national catharsis. There is the saga of Victor Corpuz, an army lieutenant and graduate of the Philippine Military Academy who, fed up with corruption under Marcos, joined the communist New People's Army and staged a daring raid on the academy's weapons armory. In 1975, after several years of fighting his former military colleagues, Corpuz either surrendered or was captured, depending on which version of the tale you believe. He was freed from jail last year by President Corazon C. Aquino, reinstated in the military, and is now an aide to the military chief of staff. Corpuz's rather remarkable ideological zigzag was chronicled last December in the film "Operation: Get Victor Corpuz."

Earlier this year, Manila newspapers were filled with stories of a right-wing colonel in violence-wracked Mindanao who formed an anticommunist vigilante group called Alsa Masa ("mass uprising" in the Tagalog tongue). Alsa Masa turned out to be ruthlessly effective at counterinsurgency, using tactics such as beheading suspected NPA rebels and displaying severed heads on sticks. There followed almost immediately a cheap and gory film called, naturally, "Alsa Masa," which featured a cameo appearance by the real colonel, Frank Calida.

A movie is also planned about the life of Bernabe Buscayno, popularly known as "Kumander Dante," a former student leader who went underground and helped found the communist guerrilla army. Dante was captured and languished in jail until he, like Corpuz, was freed by Aquino. Since then he has tried his hand at elective politics and ran unsuccessfully for the senate in May. But his change from insurgent to advocate of parliamentarianism has angered his former rebel friends, and last June, Dante was wounded in an ambush outside a Quezon City television studio.

The one glaring exception in recent Philippine political and social turmoil that has not yet been filmed is the 1986 revolution that toppled Marcos and brought Aquino to power. A few filmmakers have considered undertaking the revolution-as-movie, but decided against it because it is still too controversial, too expensive or simply too vast and complicated a project for their limited resources.

Most of the headline-exploitation films are sloppily made and survive in the movie houses only about as long as it takes to replace them with others, but "Balweg" seems by most accounts to be a cut above the norm.

The Tagalog-language film is directed by Butch Perez, stars veteran dramatic actor Phillip Salvador and features Tetchie Agbayani, a striking Filipino actress and model who is one of the few to have had film experience in Hollywood.

Salvador has been credited with giving depth to what might easily have become another film-size comic book character. He met four times with Balweg, to study his movement and gestures, and listened at length to the rebel priest expound on the plight of the Cordillera people and their land.

"It's difficult to make a true-to-life story when the character is still alive," Salvador says. "I had to find the location of the Cordilleras, what {Balweg's} principles were, why he became a rebel. I had to live with the Cordillera people and get to know their culture."

"Balweg" was made by Viva Films, one of the country's largest movie producers. It's a big picture by Phillipine standards, costing the equivalent of about $400,000, or roughly twice the amount of an average film here. It took three months to film, with the actors and crew living on location with no running water. "Balweg"also illustrates the pitfalls of making a movie about such controversial subjects. The New People's Army, which has no lingering affection for its renegade rebel, threatened to bomb any theater that showed the film. Of five theaters scheduled to premiere the film in Baguio -- part of the Cordillera autonomous region -- two backed out at the last minute.

"Balweg," which the producers are hoping to market internationally, has "some sense to it," says Lino Brocka. "It speaks about land. It speaks about the plight of these people. You have all the helicopters and all the bang-bang-bang, but you also get something more."

Could Balweg The Movie be the turning point that lifts the true-life adventure film to the level of art? Salvador thinks maybe. His next movie -- in which he also hopes to combine action with message -- is "Abner Afuang," based on the life of a policeman who guns down four car thieves, is fired over an issue of principle and becomes a bounty hunter