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REVIEW: 'Leonor Will Never Die' is an ingenious love letter and critique to Philippine cinema and society

By NICK GARCIA Published Aug 12, 2022 4:00 pm Updated Aug 12, 2022 4:09 pm

The concept of the "_ within a _" isn’t exactly new in the world of arts.

In 1849, Edgar Allan Poe toyed with the idea of a dream within a dream in his classic poem. In 2010, Christopher Nolan followed suit in Inception, even adding a third dream layer just because. (It also gave birth to the suffix "-ception," which humorously denotes multilayered aspects.)

Michael R. Jackson's A Strange Loop, hailed as the best musical during last June's 75th Tony Awards, is a musicalception: a black gay man who hates his day job as he writes his original musical, which is about a black gay man who hates his day job as he writes his original musical.

Homegrown talents, of course, aren’t to be outdone with the "-ception" shenanigans.

National Artist for Literature Cirilo Bautista and Janus Silang mastermind Edgar Samar explored narrativeception through their respective novels Galaw ng Asoge (2004) and Alternatibo sa Alternatibong Mundo (2016).

Just this year, filmmaker Martika Ramirez Escobar did the same in her debut feature-length movie Leonor Will Never Die.

Leonor Will Never Die revolves around Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco), a retired filmmaker specializing in the action genre during her heyday. Leonor isn’t having the best retirement: she’s long estranged from her husband movie star Valentin (Alan Bautista), who tries his stab at local politics; her son Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon) is fatally shot; her other son Rudie (Bong Cabrera), who’s living with her, grows impatient as their Meralco bill remains unpaid for three months. The meter reader is only giving them a pass because of her fame.

Gone are Leonor’s glory days until she sees a newspaper ad calling for screenplay submissions. Giving her a new lease on life somehow, she brings out her unfinished screenplay for Ang Pagbabalik ng Kwago. Its premise (and title) is unmistakably a Noypi action: Young and noble Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides) seeks to avenge his brother’s murder at the hand of thugs.

It's all systems go for her writing process, until one curious day when Leonor’s neighbor throws a television out the window and accidentally hits her, sending her into a coma.

But the seeming tragedy is what gets the party started: Leonor gets transported to the realm of her incomplete movie, where her ever-omnipotent self can constantly rewrite the narrative to her heart’s content to achieve the perfect ending.

Leonor (Sheila Francisco), the retired filmmaker specializing in the action genre.

Escobar’s filmception is a love letter to, and a parody of, the Noypi action films of the ‘80s. Being so self-aware, Kwago nails everything in the genre’s playbook. To name a few, there’s a cabaret dancer who eventually becomes the bida’s partner after saving her from men harassing her; corny, predictable dialogue; tepid, awkward intimate scenes; maangas minor kontrabidas who’d provoke the bida but are no match for his bulletproof state, his dramatic tumbles, and his rapid-fire punches; the climax where the bida and his leading lady are tied up while the major kontrabida—the maniacal-laughing, corrupt politiko—and his goons torture them. There’s even the proverbial final scene of the entire cast performing a song and dance number.

Escobar also made sure to use a boxed aspect ratio, a grainy filter, and a somber score during the Kwago scenes, giving that unapologetic Cinema One vibes.

Though it utilizes the obvious clichés in past Noypi action films, Leonor Will Never Die was careful enough to make the string of events unpredictable as the audience go to and from the Kwago realm and the Leonor “reality.” The two worlds eventually converge towards the end of the story, and while there’s a self-reflexive song and dance number as conclusion, the preceding last scene that’s meant to tie up loose ends just shatters expectations anew and is out of the movie’s world(s), quite literally.

Escobar’s ingeniousness doesn’t end there. Leonor Will Never Die not only pokes fun at the action genre but also critiques the local filmmaking industry itself.

The fact that Leonor is financially unstable despite being an “auteur” may be an acknowledgement of the hard-hitting truth: Not all filmmakers and actors, especially those who aren’t in the mainstream, are basking in the glory of their filmographies, and not everybody has a seven-digit net worth just because they’re stars.

Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides) of Leonor's screenplay Ang Pagbabalik ng Kwago.

There’s also a scene where Leonor frequents a stall that sells pirated DVDs, alluding to the Filipinos’ normalized practice of watching movies illegally instead of directly supporting local filmmakers by paying hundreds of pesos in cinemas.

But perhaps it’s also what Escobar wants to point out: Though illegal, it’s simply because of the dire material conditions since then, and moreso now that there’s COVID-19 pandemic and inflation. If anything, it lends credence to the notion that Filipino movies, like Leonor, will never die, forever consumed by the masa by any means necessary—Netflix series and Korean drama notwithstanding.

It’s also absorbing how Leonor Will Never Die inspects pressing issues that continue to hound the country.

For instance, Leonor getting away with not paying Meralco just because she’s famous may be alluding to the prevailing system in which those with “influence” are given undue advantages.

Her husband Valentin is also an embodiment of the truth that’s stranger than fiction in Philippine politics: Celebrities, especially the washed-up ones, run for public office and apparently get elected over those with respectable credentials and clean track records.

Francisco is such a treat to watch as Leonor, who deftly and gracefully pulled off the comic and solemn scenes.

The crowd went wild during the sequence where she, during her coma, types the script in the air as she visualizes the scenes in her head. As she joins the Kwago characters, she delivers their lines and is in sync with them, prompting guffaws inside the theater. While she’s on the sidelines marveling at her screenplay’s scenes coming to life, so did the viewers who couldn’t resist clapping.

Leonor's son Rudie (Bong Cabrera) visits her in the hospital.

Francisco also effectively depicted a mother-slash-artist dealing with grief. Like how the masa would often turn to movies and teleseryes as respite from the trials and tribulations of everyday life, so did Leonor. Naming the bida of her beloved screenplay after Ronwaldo is not only a befitting tribute to her son, but also signifies her never dying love for him—her magnum opus.

There are also scenes that show Leonor casually talking to his ghost, a nod to the Filipino penchant for the supernatural. It’s also quite reminiscent of magic realism in Latin American literature.

If there’s any concern about the movie, however, perhaps it’s the rather slow start. A few scenes depicting Leonor’s mundane routine prior to the television magic could have been removed since they don’t really propel the story.

From a writing perspective, it’s also quite difficult to believe Rudie—who’s mostly standoffish toward Leonor—having an instantaneous 180-degree turn when she went into a coma. How and why did he suddenly gain keen interest in her unfinished screenplay just moments later, even with the apparent lack of motivation and character development? Out of nowhere, he knows exactly where to find the manuscript, thoroughly reads it, and pitches it to a director. Whether it’s self-reflexivity about the weakness of Noypi action screenplays, I can’t quite put my finger on it.

But then again, maybe it’s not the narrative that Escobar wishes to highlight in her work. Maybe it’s how though she’s employing the not-so-new filmception, Escobar, like Leonor, can play by her own filmmaking rules in coming up with a movie that has a perfect ending: one that delivers a singular big screen experience, one that transports the viewers from this reality to somewhere that’s ethereal.

***

Leonor Will Never Die, produced by ANIMA and Arkeo Films, was part of the United States’ Sundance Film Festival in January. It won the Special Jury Award for Innovative Spirit.

It made its Philippine debut at the Cinemalaya Film Festival last Aug. 5 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Pasay. It has already been shown at various movie screenings in the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Taiwan, among others. 

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