Martika Ramirez Escobar’s directorial debut sees Lenor (Sheila Francisco), a bereaved screenwriter, go through an accident that actually allows her to take control of her own story—literally.
Although the opening of Leonor Will Never Die is paced rather slowly, it does what it needs to do in order to set the scene for Leonor’s life and establish her place within her family. She watches old action films recommended by the local children, and neglects to pay her electricity bills. She has tense discussions with her son, who is planning on moving away. It is a slow life. The people around her rarely manage to scratch below her surface, and for good reason: we learn that some years ago her other son was shot dead. She has since retreated into herself and retired from her career in filmmaking, where she was once an iconic figure. But she is thrust unceremoniously back into this old life when she is knocked into both a coma and one of her unfinished movies, about a man named Ronwaldo—the same name as her dead son—avenging his brother’s death.
It’s immediately clear that this film is going to be considerably more tender than your typical action flick, in which the star dodges bullets and gets the girl. The insertion of a ‘lola’, or grandmother figure—something director Martika Ramirez Escobar had noticed was missing from her source material, Filipino action films—brings a heart to the story. Leonor, in a way, gets to spend time with her lost son once more. She has almost resurrected him through writing him into her screenplay. Rather than resembling any other particular film, this idea is reminiscent of works such as Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet, in which there is a passage about Shakespeare writing Hamlet, ostensibly named after his dead son, as a way of both bringing him back and creating a figure to take his place. Add this to Leonor’s other son trying to film her unfinished screenplay while she’s indisposed and you get a film that, ultimately, is about how writing keeps those we love alive.
The cinematography of the film makes it extremely enjoyable to watch, with the cuts between present-day scenes and those filmed to look like an old-fashioned action movie really varying the film’s visual texture. The sound of a tapping keyboard when Leonor tries to rewrite her story as it’s happening is particularly evocative, and the soundtrack feels familiar despite having never heard it before—the mark of a truly effective tribute to existing media. The interplay between light and dark scenes—both emotionally and visually—is a good balance. There is comedy where there is heartbreak, and even in scenes shot at night everything important is still visible; gone is the need to increase your screen brightness every time a scene takes place in a darkened room.
The film’s outlook on spirits and the dead is also interesting. Throughout the film many characters frequently talk to the ghostly figure of Ronwaldo, an occurrence that is treated as commonplace. This is where the film really benefits from a non-Western lens. Rather than being made into a hallucination of Leonor’s, or treated as something frightening or unexpected, this spirit is simply a part of everyone’s lives.
Slightly weaker aspects of the film include pacing—even with a runtime of less than 100 minutes, some moments feel overstretched and could be streamlined. Scenes in which Leonor’s son waits at her bedside do not particularly progress his or her character, for example, and fight scenes are long drawn out. The film does poke fun at the excessive amount of fight scenes within action films, but without actually reducing the number of them, which seems contradictory to the idea of wanting to add something to the genre. Another somewhat excessive element is the level of violence. This could, of course, be a matter of personal preference on the part of the viewer, but those who are more interested in the present-day themes than the homage aspect may find it slightly tiresome. Leonor’s presence contrasts the bleaker outlook of most of the characters in her film, but the family themes are far more interesting than scenes in which one character shoves a nail into another’s eye. If many of these had been trimmed down, Leonor might have done better as a shorter film, with all of its themes still coming across.
These things do not significantly impact the quality of the film but rather serve as mild annoyances. Francisco, as Leonor, is the perfect fit for the part—she has emotional depth, but can hold her own in the toughened-up world of the action film, often finding herself right in the middle of unfolding events. In a more subtle performance is Bong Cabrera as Rudie Reyes, Leonor’s living son, who tries to navigate the world without her presence as she lies in her coma. Plenty of characters who have difficult relationships with their mothers spend half of the film screaming and shouting—not him. His moments of frustration and resentment are often bottled up until they manifest into familiar raised voices and anger, but this happens at just the right times rather than being a constant, loud tirade. Love, though, is threaded through his performance. It is palpable the entire time.
An impressive directorial debut that serves as both action film-homage and self-referential family story, Leonor Will Never Die is a touching film about how much of our lives we really live through fiction.
Words by Casey Langton
Leonore Will Never Die will release in UK cinemas on 7 April 2023.
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