Leonor lives!

Movie ReviewLeonor Will Never DieWritten and Directed by Martika Ramirez Escobar

Leonor (Sheila Francisco) is a retired Filipina action filmmaker who nurses a script she dreams of directing someday; meantime she receives a disconnection notice from the power company and her eldest Rudie (Bong Cabrera) schemes to work overseas but can’t bring himself to tell his mother. Humble junkyard welder Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides) watches in horror as his younger brother is falsely accused of being a drug pusher and gunned down; Leonor is struck down by a stray television set (don’t ask), suddenly finds herself inside Ronwaldo’s increasingly hazardous storyline; meantime Rudie, staying by his unconscious mother’s side, decides to make a movie of his mother’s unfinished script…

If you’re thinking Filipino version of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, you’re not too far off, only Martika Ramirez Escobar pulls her film off at a fraction of the Daniels’ budget, which in turn was done at a fraction of Sam Raimi’s Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness catering budget. Metaverses are in, doncha know, the only question being where you happen to be coming from (Marvel Cinematic Universe, indie, Filipino indie) and where you happen to be going (mother coping with grief over lost children, mother attempting to reconcile with estranged child, mother attempting to reconcile with departing child and resurrect her career).

When I say “fraction of the budget” I mean it; where the Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) can afford to depict over a dozen alternate realities, Escobar can only manage two or three; where the Daniels choreograph elaborate wuxia fight scenes involving extended-strap fanny packs, Escobar stages Fernando Poe Jr.-style meat-and-potato fistfights with plenty of gunfire on the side.

Despite which Ms. Escobar manages to serve up her share of oddball details, stuff even the Daniels haven’t thought of: Leonor’s youngest son —  also called Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon) —  happens to be dead, but spends his time in a semitransparent state, talking to mother and sundry family members when he isn’t busy printing his face out on the photocopier; Rudie, Leonor’s estranged son, has to handle his mother’s eccentricities at the same time he’s attempting to produce her unfinished script at the same time he’s realized his mother has somehow fled her hospital bed into the TV screen playing in the visitor’s lounge.

All wonderfully weird but more wonderful yet is the nonchalance with which Leonor and her family accept it all (the beer session between Rudie, ghost Ronwaldo, and their politician father is worth the price of a ticket). What grounds the proceedings —  what stops the whole confounding confection from just drifting indifferently away —  is Sheila Francisco’s Leonor. She’s not just a dreamer she’s a mother, and not just to her own family but her family up on the big screen. She created them, feels responsible for them, loves them uncritically, even – apparently —  the bad guys.

The scenario Leonor writes is rooted in 1970s and ’80s Filipino action melodrama, in the grand tradition of Ramon Revilla, Joseph Estrada, the aforementioned Fernando Poe, Jr. (“Ronwaldo” incidentally being the pseudonym Poe used when he directed) —  men are men, villains are neanderthal, women are beautiful and otherwise useless in a brawl (I’m looking at you, Rea Molina-as-Isabella, who looks great in a canary feather bikini but is given little else to do, which is the joke). The hero is unfailingly noble if a tad weak on anger management, the villains leer and sneer and dream up sadistic scenarios (Dido de la Paz being the loudest and most sadistic sneerer). Ms. Escobar, a veteran cinematographer, evokes an old-school feel in the action sequences by switching from modern-day wide screen to 4:3 aspect ratio with heavily saturated color palette, adding her own touch by allowing the camera to smoothly pull back or press in (underlining the action), adding editing tweaks to help make Ronwaldo’s evasions and attacks a little more plausible.

Leonor reacts to the escalating near-biblical violence (one incident recalls the story of Jael), expresses grief over the various deaths, at one point apologizing and reminding us that on a certain level she’s responsible. Ms. Escobar doesn’t explore this aspect much — she’s got too many other fish to fry, or otherwise mutilate —  and quickly paints herself in a narrative corner, to the point that she has to take a step back further —  open up yet another alternate verse, so to speak —  and ask herself: how can we end this? What’s the best way out? Her answer recalls Larry Gelbart’s musical City of Angels or Dennis Potter’s finale to Pennies From Heaven and might induce groans or applause, depending on how you’ve been responding so far.

I applauded, for the record.

For every plot hole or loose end left dangling, Escobar delivers yet another startling image for us to either pick up or totally miss: the dream about the snail, the languid flow of MRI images of Leonor’s brain, the young man on the hospital bed congratulated for being pregnant (“it’s a miracle, son!”), the TV interview of a semitranslucent ghost, the mute child who follows Leonor’s adventures through various video screens, the moment when Ronwaldo runs down the long street and screams at the camera “What do I do now?!,” the bonkers physician (Tami Monsod) who updates us on Leonor’s medical condition and dispenses spiritual advice on the side. Critics complain that it’s too strange, too incoherent but Leonor has the answer as always: when in doubt or confused, you can always just shut up and sing.

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