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DIRECTED BY: Martika Ramirez Escobar
FEATURING: Sheila Francisco, Bong Cabrera, Rocky Salumbides, Anthony Falcon
PLOT: After a conk on the noggin, an aging filmmaker finds herself inside her unfinished action movie script.
COMMENTS: Leonor Will Never Die is two movies for the price of one: a gritty revenge-based actioner (Ang Pagbabalik ng Kwago, “The Return of the Owl”) wrapped inside a charming dramedy about an eccentric grandmother. Actually, it may be even more than two movies, because there’s also a ghost running around, a pregnant man, another amateur version of the action movie, and some meta-movie noodling and behind-the-scenes footage of this movie as it’s being made. And a couple random musical numbers thrown in, too. The movie is as overpopulated and ramshackle as the cramped shantytowns where much of Kwago takes place.
With all of that going on, Leonor might be forgiven for confusing audiences accustomed to straightforward fare. The film flirts with a number of reality-collides-with-fiction conceits—including a hint of Author as God, when kindly Leonor apologizes to one of her own creations for the troubled life she gave her and confesses, “I also lost my son.” Leonor sometimes rewrites the movie-within-the-movie as it’s happening, by clacking her fingers on an imaginary typewriter: Renwaldo’s final showdown with the vicious criminal Mayor goes through multiple iterations before reaching its climax. And Leonor has particular trouble figuring out how to end itself; Escobar says that she went through twenty-five edits before finally settling on the version we see today. You could argue that Leonor has too many ideas and strays from narrative and thematic rigor, but the ragged impulses and loose ends are a large part of what makes it a weird, and wonderful, experience.
I shouldn’t overstress how supposedly confusing Leonor is, however; it’s more joyously jumbled. At its core, the movie tells the story of how Leonor’s experiences shape the script that she writes as a way to redeem her own personal history. The movie’s surrealistic intrusions are gentle and don’t undermine its crowd-pleasing aspects. Shelia Francisco, frumping around in a floral muumuu with a kindly smile, holds it all together as the title character. In reality, she’s a pathetic, fading has-been on her way out; in the world of her screenplay, on the other hand, she’s an omniscient (but still troubled) entity. The movie-within-the-movie is the real wonder here: it’s an affectionate tribute and parody of the action films that dominated the Philippines’ domestic cinema during the Marcos regime. You’ve probably never seen one of these (though if you’re lucky you’ve caught a Weng Weng movie), but you’ll immediately recognize the tropes from revenge-minded B-movies everywhere: melodramatic acting, intense closeups, overdramatic lighting, eye-candy leading ladies, men’s shirts unbuttoned to their navels, energetic but incoherent editing, and sadistic violence (it’s good thing for Leonor’s script that Filipinos traditionally have hammers and nails hanging on their living room walls). The fight scenes are brutal, but fun: the kind where every thug knows a little kung fu, and you can’t fling a combatant five feet without them shattering the breakaway furniture. Leonor’s troubled relations with her own family highlight the appeal of this morally uncomplicated fantasy world where good guys protect the weak from predators and inevitably triumph over evil, and deaths are never in vain. In this way, Leonor settles into its main themes: the way stories inform our understanding of the world; the genuine value of escapism, both personal and communal; and, finally, how we all are like film editors, cutting and pasting and recasting our memories to fit the story we want to tell about ourselves.
Spoiler: Leonor will actually die. But Leonor Will Never Die will exist as long as Blu-rays are sold or movies are streamed. It has already joined the immortals in the eternal world of cinema.
The packed Blu-ray contains trailers for this and other Music Box releases, an Escobar commentary, a “making of” interview with the filmmaker, a video diary about the film’s festival run, three stills galleries, and the director’s 2014 short “Pusong Bato,” which references a lot of the same strands of Filipino cinema nostalgia that will appear in Leonor, but adds a woman falling in love with a rock.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Packed with self-reflexive humor and a deep reverence for the art of filmmaking, ‘Leonor Will Never Die’ establishes writer/director Martika Ramirez Escobar as an artist with a singular voice and bright future in halls of weird cinema.”–Marya E. Gates, RogerEbert.com, (festival screening)