Festivals, Reviews

Sundance 2022: ‘Leonor Will Never Die’ – A Love Letter to Filipino Cinema

In Martika Ramirez Escobar’s director statement, she talks about a famous action star without any political background nabbing the most powerful position in the country. She reflects on how this ties to the Filipino people’s love for movies, especially action. Decades later, a macho man that seemed straight out of “bakbakan” (fighting) films became the country’s president in 2016. Philippine politics continue to fill with these macho men; even boxer-turned-senator Manny Pacquiao is trying out his chances for the most powerful seat in the country. 

Yes, we Filipinos love our movies because of how it blurs the line between reality and fantasy; to the extent that we elect actors and characters who seem to come straight out of the screen, thinking they might be the ones to finally fix a system that has screwed us over and over. Escobar uses this escapism we all crave as the basis for Leonor through the eyes of a woman who dominated such a male-oriented culture.

The titular character Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco), who was once a famous screenwriter-director of action films, now lives in financial difficulty with her son Rudy (Bong Cabrera) and is still grieving the death of her favorite son Ronwaldo, whose ghost (Anthony Falcon) visits her from time to time. After seeing an ad for a writing competition, she rehashes an old script titled, “Ang Pagbabalik ng Kwago,” and her process transports us to the era of “bakbakan” films of the 70s and 80s. What happens next is a wild ride that is magical, absurd, and meta.

Leonor is one of the most clever and creative films of the festival and of Filipino cinema in recent years, offering us loveable characters and a fun love letter to action movies. The nostalgia Escobar invokes on Filipino viewers is compelling. It felt very familiar to me even though I don’t remember ever paying special attention to such films, which is perhaps a testament to how ingrained action is in our movie-watching culture. I remember these kinds of movies playing on local TV after the noontime variety show slot; I passively took in the basic structure, look, and storytelling of the action movie. Leonor took me back to a simpler time, and it is probably the same for many other Filipinos.

Escobar establishes her style and storytelling prowess through Leonor. Her love for film oozes throughout. The performances were powerful and comical, especially Francisco’s lovable action-lola. 

From a technical standpoint, the style of 70s and 80s action movies was on point. The composition, color, and camera movements were creative as it is in sync with the mood of the film. One of the things that bothered me, though, was its sound aspects: the levels were all over the place, but maybe that’s just my film-student-self being particular about the technicalities of recording. It did throw me off the story a little. Another was how some of the aspects of the story near the end felt forced. Still, Leonor’s tackling of grief and the power of cinema to process such grief prevails. 

Leonor Will Never Die is sure to become an instant classic in Filipino cinema and will inspire a new generation of Filipino storytellers to take inspiration within our own culture.

‘Leonor Will Never Die’ won the Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Innovative Spirit.

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