Martika Ramirez Escobar’s crowd-pleasing debut feature is full of heart, and you don’t have to be a Filipino movie fan to thoroughly enjoy it.
Straight from its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Leonor Will Never Die is a joyous carnival affair full of love, colour, chickens, and shoddy action sequences. The film tells the story of Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco), a retired film director of Filipino action movies. Once a famous and celebrated public figure, she now lives with her adult son Rudie (Bong Cabrera) in a cluttered bungalow and ‘forgets’ to pay the electricity bill. She frequents the film stall where she buys pirated DVDs, talks cinema with the young boy who runs it, and dreams of completing her great unfinished screenplay. One day, while taking a break from her typewriter, she is hit on the head by a television and concussed.
The knock from the television sends Leonor into a coma, but also lets her slip into the world of her screenplay. It is a world of tight shirts, flared pants, hapless bad guy goons and slow motion fight scenes. These are shown in wonderful film style and are an absolute treat. Badly dubbed audio, corny sound effects, and lines like “lets see whose hard on is harder” make the film world terrifically fun. Meanwhile, back in the real world, Rudie and his father Valentin (Alan Bautista), an ex-action star, scramble wildly to revive Leonor, attempting to coerce her out of her coma by trying to get her script produced.
The world of Leonor’s action flick is wildly entertaining, featuring slow zooms, cross fades, hilarious editing, and continuity errors galore. It follows the story of Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides), who must avenge his murdered brother and defend his beautiful lady love Isabella (Rea Molina) against the corrupt and evil mayor. Leonor passes in the film world largely unnoticed, mouthing along with the lines, until she farts loudly in the middle of a dodgy sex scene and gives herself away. After this, she is drawn into the action and must become the star of her own story to save her new friends.
The outrageous comedy of the film world is contrasted with a gentle humour in the outside world too, as Rudie and Valentin earnestly seek a producer for Leonor’s story. This is delivered through ordinary conversations, such as those with Leonor’s weirdly intimate female doctor. The same is true for the cinematography, masterfully executed by Carlos Mauricio. It is garishly beautiful in the film world: rich, vibrant, and heavily saturated and contrasted. This is placed alongside the softer real life scenes of Filipino life in the outside world: lovely, faded, gentle, unexpectedly poetic and tender as it celebrates ordinary street scenes of shops, porches, local elections, kitchens, and cats playing.
At the heart of Leonor Will Never Die is a touchingly ordinary family drama about a dysfunctional group of people who love each other very much, and can only do their best to support each other through the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Ronwaldo also happens to be the name of Leonor’s dead son, who haunts her waking life as a ghost, as well as that of Rudie and Valentin. In the film, Leonor meets a woman that is a surrogate for herself in Ronwaldo’s mother. She too, has lost a son, and explains “I didn’t know what to do. It was like a film.” Ultimately Leonor must triumph in the movie-verse not only for her own sake, but as a form of closure, to come to terms with the loss of her boy. At the same time, Rudie must step up to the plate and grow up to save his mother from the film world.
Unfortunately Leonor Will Never Die trails off somewhat towards the end. The film gets carried away and lost in its absurdist daring, becoming distracted by its metafictionality. It continues to push the boundaries of the fourth wall and drifts away from the characters, neglecting their development and leaving behind the heart of the film that makes it so special. This change of direction and tone seems to come too late in the day, and disrupts the flow of the film. Several character arcs are left unresolved, leaving the ending feeling somewhat abrupt. Overall, however, Leonor Will Never Die is a sweet, absurd, and likeable film that is a precious love letter to Filipino culture and cinema. It manages to be simultaneously light-hearted and touching, and will be sure to have audiences leaving the cinema smiling.
Leonor Will Never Die is a tender, laugh-out-loud, heart-warming piece of art. Although it loses pace and direction towards the end, it is still a must-see for die hard Filipino film fans, and, for that matter, anyone else who just loves a good giggle.
Words by Eli Dolliver
This film was screened as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. You can find the rest of our coverage here.
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