An ode to action films and a meditation on grief and the creative process, “Leonor Will Never Die” demonstrates why we love foreign films.
I find it uniquely fascinating to see other cultures’ take on the sensibilities of American movies. Far from Hollywood, with its massive budgets and seemingly infinite resources, international filmmakers have long put their own spin on American-style genre films, armed with little more than a cheap camera and a whole lot of moxie.
Action movies, with their clear heroes and villains and sugar-rush violence, seem to be a favorite genre for filmmakers around the world.
From 1987’s Korean-American Miami Connection to 2010’s Who Killed Captain Alex? from Uganda, it seems there’s no shortage of love for fights, guns, and explosions worldwide.
Leonor Will Never Die, the debut feature of Filipino director Martika Ramirez Escobar, serves as a loving tribute to her homeland’s take on action films and a tribute to the art of storytelling in general.
Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) is a celebrated director of low-budget, high-octane action movies, or at least she used to be until the death of her son Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon). Nowadays, she spends her time in her Manila home, watching other people’s movies and neglecting to pay her electric bill, much to the frustration of her adult son Rudie (Bong Cabrera), who lives with her.
After seeing an ad for a screenplay competition, Leonor digs out an unfinished work that she hoped would give her closure over Ronwaldo’s death that she couldn’t find in life. But before she can start writing, she’s bonked on the head by a falling TV and wakes up to find herself inside her own unfinished film.
As Rudie tries to get through to her in the real world, Leonor has the opportunity to finally finish what she started from the inside.
It’s clear Ramirez Escobar and her collaborators approach this genre with a great deal of affection and keen attention to detail.
She and DP Carlos Mauricio nail the aesthetic of old low-budget films.
Leonor’s shift into the movie’s world is signaled with fuzzy 16mm film grain, a boxy aspect ratio, and muffled audio, contrasting with real-world scenes’ more straightforward widescreen look.
I must admit I’m not terribly familiar with Filipino action movies. But anyone who’s watched some low-budget 80s cheese will recognize the look and feel immediately.
The film grows increasingly meta as it goes along, as art begins to imitate life and vice versa, leading to a finale that eradicates the boundaries between the two, not just in the world of the film but between the film and the viewer.
It gets a bit convoluted at times. And the world’s rules feel somewhat sloppy and inconsistent. But I tried not to let it bother me too much and just roll with the film’s dream logic.
The messy structure does amplify the central flaw in Leonor’s hope to make sense of grief through her art.
She sees the film she’s writing as an opportunity to rewrite history, have some control over fate, and explain the inexplicable.
But in the end, that’s impossible. Art can help us contextualize our pain — to create empathy between the artist and the audience. But we have very little control over what happens in our lives, and when tragedy strikes, all we can do is live with it.
A narrative implies some sort of guiding hand imposing order onto chaos. But life, and the realities of art-making, prove to be much harder to control.
As far out as the movie goes, the cast helps to keep it all anchored in real, honest emotion.
Cabrera ably sells Rudie’s conflicting love for his mother with his desire to leave and lead his own life; Alen Bautista as Rudie’s dad, Valentin, serves as a warm and grounding presence; Rocky Salumbides and Rea Molina nail the heightened reality of their in-movie characters.
But it’s Francisco’s central performance as Leonor that drives the film, and she gives a wonderful performance full of wry humor and deep love for her family and her creations.
By the time the film ends with a song and dance number (yes, of course, there’s a song and dance number), it feels like a celebration of the journey we’ve just witnessed and the often chaotic, always collaborative creative process.