CINEMATIC HALO-HALO: MAGICAL REALISM AND METACINEMA IN LEONOR WILL NEVER DIE – Martika Ramirez Escobar’s debut feature Leonor Will Never Die received a standing ovation during its Philippine premiere (which the filmmakers refer to as their “local luwal”) on the opening night of Cinemalaya 18 last August 05, 2022. The atmosphere inside the Cultural Center of the Philippines – Nicanor Abelardo Theater was so electric that it was enough to power the spirit of Cinemalaya for the entire month of August. Indeed, there was no better way to open the country’s longest-running independent film festival, than by screening a film that is essentially a love letter to the craft of filmmaking.
When one looks back at the action films that dominated Philippine Cinema during the 80s, one would immediately realize (even through posters alone) that almost most of them were led by muscular, tough-looking, machine gun-wielding, macho men, which is no surprise given how patriarchal the social norms were back then. In today’s modern society we now have more women taking the lead role in action films such as Anne Curtis in Erik Matti’s Buy Bust (2018), Janine Gutierrez in Rae Red’s Babae at Baril (2019), and more recently Sheila Fransisco as Leonor in Martika Escobar’s Leonor Will Never Die (2022). However, Escobar’s film is different from the other two, because the film’s protagonist, Leonor Reyes, does not wield a machine gun, at least for the most part, but is rather armed with a typewriter paired with a wild, adrenaline-filled, imagination. Leonor is a retired action filmmaker who struggles with paying the bills because like any other filmmaker, she spends what little money she has on bootleg DVDs and other things that she thinks would help her complete her pile of unfinished screenplays. In her interview on the Howie Severino Podcast, Martika Escobar mentions that films have the power to change our perspective of the world.
Escobar grants Leonor this power, where the ability to change the way one sees the world becomes a bit more literal when she gets teleported into one of her unfinished screenplays after getting hit by a tube television in the head. The absurdity of the film is what makes it so good, and magical realism has always been a recurring theme in Escobar’s shorts, from her thesis film Pusong Bato (2014) to her Cinemalaya short, Living Things (2020), one could already see the director’s ability to make stories that are uncompromising.
In the world of Leonor Will Never Die, Leonor’s favorite son, “Dead” Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon) is a ghost who can communicate with the living, and he does it without eliciting any surprising reactions from the people around him as if it is something that happens regularly and is normalized in the film’s world. This full embracement of magical realism has granted the film total freedom as to what direction it could take. Since the film shifts constantly between action, drama, and comedy throughout its one-and-a-half-hour runtime, one would not be surprised if it explored other genres as well. But this freedom does not come without risks, for without restrictions it is easy to overindulge in absurdity, and in the process lose your audience in the mess that is your screenplay. Not to mention that the film does not hold back in its use of meta cinematic techniques that are guaranteed to satisfy the cineasts and kinophiles (and sometimes confuse the general audience). Watching the film become more meta as it progresses made me smile like a Filipino who finally saw social justice as if everything I ever wanted to see in a film was slowly developing in front of my eyes. It transported the audience back-and-forth between the real and the imaginary, with the two eventually becoming indistinguishable from one another. As chaotic as this may sound, the filmmakers took their time (8 years to be exact!) to ensure that the story would work, and the final result can be compared to a freshly served halo-halo: Messy, sometimes weird, but overall flavorful and delectable. But beyond all the technical gimmicks the film has to offer, lies a story about incompleteness, as an artist and as a person. It is simple yet ambitious. Simple because it is straightforward, ambitious because of how absurd the situations had to be in order for the story to make sense, and make sense it did. By the time the film had reached its end, I was dead sure that this would go down as one of the best films contemporary Philippine cinema has to offer.
Martika Escobar delivers a love letter not only to the craft of filmmaking but to the local film industry as well. And to go with the film’s metacinematic nature, the mere existence of the film itself, alongside the story that lies within, reminds us that Philippine cinema is still worth fighting for.
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