Leonor Will Never Die
2022, NR, 101 min. Directed by Martika Ramirez Escobar. Starring Sheila Francisco, Bong Cabrera, Rocky Salumbides, Anthony Falcon, Rea Molina, Allan Bautista, Tami Monsod, Ryan Eigenmann.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Dec. 2, 2022
Although its ambitions often exceed its reach, the meta-mad Filipino film Leonor Will Never Die (a terrible Americanized title) bursts with imaginative impulses, scoring slightly more hits than misses in a Charlie Kaufmanesque storyline that flip-flops between reality and fantasy using the tropey device of a movie within a movie. Upon first meeting, Leonor Reyes (Francisco), a depressed Manileño hausfrau shambling through late middle age, hardly seems the type of person who’d be the hero of her own story. Living with her high-strung grown son, Rudy (Cabrera), who’s secretly (and with great guilt) preparing to leave their financially strapped household once he obtains a worker’s visa, she’s at her wit’s end upon overhearing a phone conversation about his plans. After spotting a solicitation for unproduced screenplays in a newspaper ad, Leonor – once a successful screenwriter of low-budget Filipino action flicks in the Seventies and Eighties – locates an unfinished script from decades ago and decides to complete The Return of the Kwago for a redemptive payday.
That’s just the beginning. Her writer’s block lifting, Leonor’s revitalized imagination starts to visualize the narrative she’s crafting, a violent tale of macho heroics in which a working-class Adonis named Ronwaldo (a frequently partially and fully unclothed Salumbides) sets out to avenge the death of his brother and best friend at the hands of local thugs. The execution of this B-movie by talented first-time feature director and screenwriter Escobar may be the best thing about Leonor Will Never Die. It’s a loving reenactment of late 20th-century pulp cinema, down to the cheesy syncopated score, the chop-socky fists of fury, and the gruesomely creative ways by which to dispatch a bad guy. (Hammered nail in the eye, anyone?) But when a television set thrown from an upstairs window lands Leonor in the hospital, where she lies in a hypnagogic state – the transitional space of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep – the comatose patient then physically intrudes into the movie playing inside her head to become the character who will save her action hero, a sly metaphor for self-actualization if there ever was one.
It takes a while to acclimate to the movie’s self-reflexive mash-up, particularly in the early scenes when a literally transparent young man in a tank top, a denim jacket slung over his shoulder, appears onscreen and eventually begins to interact with the living. At some point, you find out he’s the grownup ghost of Leonor’s long-deceased son, also named Ronwaldo (Falcon), who died on the set of one of her early movies after a Rust-like accident involving a live gun. While his underexplained spectral presence is more a distraction than anything, the movie hits its sweet spot once Leonor starts roaming the pages of her script, such as when she sadly apologizes to the grieving mother of one of the men killed in her narrative (“I didn’t mean to hurt you”), or when she can’t decide what should happen next, prompting good-guy Ronwaldo to break character (a smile!) and perform an impromptu dance as he awaits further instruction. But the movie becomes chaotic as it spreads the meta on thick toward an undisciplined conclusion, going so far as to include scenes in the editing room and a staged discussion with Escobar that debates how it should all end. By this point, you’ve had a bellyful of post-modernism. Sometimes, too much of a good thing is just that – too damn much.