Thursday, March 23, 2023

Leonor Will Never Die (Martika Ramirez Escobar, 2022)

Leonor lives!

Leonor (Sheila Francisco) is a retired Filipina action filmmaker who nurses a script she dreams of directing, same day 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 mother. Humble junkyard welder Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides) watches in horror as his younger brother is falsely accused of drug dealing and gunned down (shades of Rodrigo Duterte's extrajudicial killings); Leonor is struck in the head by a stray television set (don't ask), suddenly finds herself inside Ronwaldo's increasingly hazardous storyline as he seeks his brother's killers. Meantime Rudie, staying by his unconscious mother's side, decides to produce his mother's unfinished script for the big screen--

If you're thinking Filipino version of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, you're not too far off, only director Martika Ramirez Escobar did her film at a fraction of the Daniels' already modest budget, which in turn was done at a fraction of Sam Raimi's Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness' catering costs. Metaverses are in doncha know, the only question being what direction you happen to come from (Marvel Cinematic Universe, indie, Filipino indie) and what direction you happen to be headed (mother grieving over lost children, mother reaching out to estranged child, mother reaching out to estranged child and attempting to resurrect her career). 

When I say 'fraction of the budget' I mean it; where the Daniels can afford to depict dozens of 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 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 time talking to mother, brother, sundry family members when he isn't busy printing his face out on the photocopier; Responsible caretaker Rudie has to handle his mother's eccentricities same time he's attempting to produce her unfinished script same time he's realized his mother has somehow escaped her hospital bed into the TV screen playing in the visitor's lounge.

All appropriately odd but odder still is the nonchalance with which Leonor and her family accept it all (the beer session between Rudie, ghost Ronwaldo, and their moneybags politician father (he's volunteered to finance the film) is worth the admission price). What grounds the proceedings-- what stops the whole confection from just drifting indifferently away-- is Sheila Francisco's Leonor. She's not just a dreamer she's a mother, not just to her own family but her family on the big screen: honest Ronwaldo, pretty Isabella (Rea Molina), loathsome Mayor (Dido de la Paz). She created them, feels responsible for them, loves them uncritically no matter how noble or evil they are. 

Leonor's scenario is rooted in 70s and 80s Filipino action melodrama, in the grand tradition of Ramon Revilla, Joseph Estrada, the aforementioned Fernando Poe, Jr. ('Ronwaldo' incidentally being Poe's pseudonym when he directs his movies)-- men are men, villains are neanderthal, women are beautiful and otherwise useless in a brawl (I'm looking at you Isabella, so pretty in your canary-yellow feather bikini but given little else to do, which is the joke). The hero is unfailingly noble if a tad wanting on anger management, the villains leer and sneer and dream up sadistic scenarios (the Mayor being the loudest and most sadistic sneerer of them al). Escobar, a veteran cinematographer, evokes old-school feel in the action sequences by shifting from contemporary widescreen to 4:3 aspect ratio with heavily saturated colors, adds her own touch by allowing the camera to pull back or push forward (underlining the action), inserts editing tweaks to help make Ronwaldo's fighting style just that much more plausible.

Leonor mourns the escalating near-biblical violence (one gruesome incident involving a cement mixer feels like a parody of Edgar Allan Poe; another involving hammer and nail recalls the story of Jael), grieves over the various deaths, at one point apologizing and reminding us that in a way she's responsible. Escobar doesn't explore this aspect much-- she's got too much other fish to fry-- and quickly paints herself into a narrative corner, at which point she takes a step back further-- opens yet another alternate verse, so to speak-- and asks herself: how do we end this? What's the best way out? Her answer recalls the climax of Larry Gelbart's City of Angels or the finale to Dennis Potter's 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 on or totally miss: the dream about a snail; the languid flow of MRI images issuing from Leonor's brain; the young man in a 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 desperately down an endless street and screams at the camera "What do I do now?!"; the bonkers physician (Tami Monsod) who updates us on Leonor's medical condition the same time she dispenses New Age spiritual advise. Critics may complain that it's all too strange or too incoherent but Leonor has an answer ready as always: when in despair or in doubt or hopelessly confused, you can always just shut up and sing.  

First published in Businessworld 3.17.23

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