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Everything Leonor all at once

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 03, 2023 5:00 am

Surely, I can’t be the only one to spot parallels between the Oscar winner Everything Everywhere All at Once and Martika Ramirez Escobar’s audacious slice of meta, Leonor Will Never Die.

While Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s multiverse comedy took the Best Picture trophy at this year’s Academy Awards (and is now showing again locally), Escobar’s film (now showing on Netflix) won a Special Jury Prize for Innovative Spririt at Sundance Festival when it was released in January 2022.

Daniel Kwan (left) and Daniel Scheinert won best director for "Everything Everywhere All at Once" at the Academy Awards .

Both films involve a troubled older woman who slips into an imaginary world after a certain trauma.

Both feature a detailed evocation of Asian film genres. In the case of Everything, it’s martial arts, plus just about every other Hollywood genre you can list—Charlie Kaufman absurdity, family melodrama, love story, hero story, action film.

In the case of Leonor, Escobar’s filmic world seems centered on recreating ‘70s and ‘80s action hero films, the sort of dramas that Joseph Estrada and FPJ Jr. specialized in—“defenders of the weak,” down to the blue collar/barrio settings and multi-angle cheesy-edit fight scenes. In Leonor, the recreations are pure homage: Escobar clearly loves these films (probably from watching “dibidis” or local television). She has a sharp understanding of the ethos behind it, but placing Leonor (played memorably by Sheila Francisco) in the driver’s seat, viewers get to see her “rewrite” her own script numerous times—a meta move that gets increasingly, deliriously interwoven into our appreciation of the narrative. (Making it even more meta, she depicts corrupt politicos and cops within the fictional film within the film, Ang Pagbabalik ng Kwago, or Return of the Owl, placing drugs on slain suspects to tag them as “addicts,” which actually occurred in real life.)

Both Leonor Will Never Die (on Netflix) and Everything Everywhere All At Once (now showing in cinemas) feature a troubled older woman who slips into an imaginary world after a certain trauma.

Everything also places its action star Michelle Yeoh in the driver’s seat, and with its much bigger budget, it’s a wild ride (it’s telling that the two Daniels had to chop away 30 percent of their original frenetic script).

Playing Evelyn, a discontented laundromat owner who’s being targeted by the IRS, finds her marriage vaporous and doesn’t really “see” her gay daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), Yeoh is our eyes into the multiverse. Fearing that their multiverse concept had been preempted by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse which came out in 2018, Kwan said they had to focus their concept down to the question: “What if your mother was in The Matrix?”

Michelle Yeoh  plays Evelyn Wang and her daughter Joy, played by Stephanie Hsu

That’s a good pitchline, and Everything uses the multiverse to explore the poles of existentialism, nihilism, and something more spiritual and loving towards the end. The idea of slipping into different versions of yourself is not incredibly new—we’ve seen it in Double Life of Veronique, Sliding Doors, Groundhog Day, hell, even the Jamie Lee Curtis remake of Freaky Friday. But Everything uses its hyperdrive concept to propel the film visually into something close to ADHD levels. There’s no fence to sit on, watching this film; you either like the wild ride, or you get off at the train at some point.

It’s worth hailing Escobar’s effort, because it shows a path forward—reimagining genre through absurdity and metaphysical inquiry—for Filipino filmmakers seeking a universal audience.

Similarly, Leonor Will Never Die explores multiple versionality in a way that harks back to the 2006 Will Ferrell film Stranger Than Fiction, in which an IRS agent (Ferrell) feels he’s cracking up, hearing a female author’s voice narrating his story in his head. Like that film, Leonor explores authorial voice; its aims are metafictional, while Everything's are more metaphysical. The local film scene becomes a backdrop and metaphor for this, with Escobar weaving in hilarious episodes involving TV productions, editing rooms where the actual narrative of Leonor’s life is recut and re-edited to explore different endings. It’s not an entirely new concept, and it’s done on a relatively low budget, but the film crackles with energy and intelligence.

Sheila Francisco as Leonor, is a retired Filipina action filmmaker.

Leonor (Francisco) is a former film director now reduced to a modest existence; her husband is a former action star turned politician; one of her sons met with an unfortunate death and the other one is seemingly ill-prepared for life’s challenges. Leonor meets with a freak accident while sneaking a cigarette in her backyard and goes into a “hypnagogic” coma, neither awake nor asleep. In her mind, she casts herself as a roving observer of her own unfilmed script about “defender of the weak” Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides) who takes on a corrupt mayor and tries to rescue a young bar dancer (Rea Molina). Leonor keeps flitting back and forth between reality and her own fiction, and the film also flits nimbly between meta levels of creating art and living one’s life. And it ends with a song-and-dance number, as any Filipino classic should.

Leonor, in its modest way, travels down a path similar to Everything’s narrative arc: the mother’s loss of one child, and lack of communication with the other; Leonor’s effort to exert her own considerable imagination to plumb the depths of her own metafictional universe, just as Yeoh navigates the multiverse.

In both films, cinematic genre provides an aesthetic lens through which to explore deeper philosophical questions.

And not for nothing, both films feature a female protagonist making her own choices and choosing her own path—even if fate and the multiverse get in the way at times.

But outside the meta worlds, it’s worth noting which actually came first. In terms of temporal chronology, Leonor was shot pre-COVID between July and September 2019; screenwriter/director Martika Ramirez Escobar had the idea as far back as the presidency of action star Joseph Estrada, she says. It was finally released at Sundance Film Festival in January 2022.

Everything Everywhere All At Once began shooting in January 2020 and was released in March 2021 at SXSW film festival. So: chicken, egg, yada, yada.

Shot on a modest budget, Leonor Will Never Die did about $28,147 at the box office. Everything Everywhere All At Once, with a budget of $30 million, will end up raking in double that at least, after the Oscar win.

It’s worth noting that Leonor was one of the first films to be supported by the Film Development Council of the Philippines, which should continue taking chances on quirky, out-of-the-box ideas. And it’s worth hailing Escobar’s effort, because it shows a path forward—reimagining genre through absurdity and metaphysical inquiry—for Filipino filmmakers seeking a universal audience, one beyond this single-wound strand of the multiverse.