The film-loving meta-movie genre has many wonderful — and a few tedious — entries in its canon, but Martika Ramirez Escobar’s Leonor Will Never Die may be among the most joyous and varied of them. At times lighthearted and otherwise deeply emotional, this trip through both surreal fancies and a genuine adoration of ’80s action-movie pulp never fails to charm, even as a few of its looser elements could benefit from a little tightening.
Sheila Francisco plays Leonor Reyes, a retired filmmaker whose family have had a difficult relationship with the world of cinema. Both successes and tragedies have befallen them due to their proximity to the world of storytelling, and yet Leonor finds herself drawn to finishing an action screenplay she began years earlier. Escobar wastes no time establishing the truly symbiotic presence of movies in the day-to-day lives of the Filipinos she portrays: children watch action movies on the street and memorize their favorite moves, conversations one might expect to be had over sports showdowns or political machinations focus instead on macho fight choreography, and people like Leonor find themselves wondering if their stalled lives might be vastly improved by never letting the action movie spell break.
She has a chance to test that idea when, quite suddenly, a neighbor’s television falls on her head. Due in no small part to her being in that creative mindset where all you can do is live and breathe the work you’re attempting to bring to life, this massive head trauma propels her into the living world of her film. Suddenly, she is right alongside the hunky hero and street-smart heroine, even battling the nefarious gangsters and hoodlums who so viciously terrorize the area she has conjured. At times, she can compel her narrative omnipotence to change the course of events around her, but elsewhere, Leonor is apparently trapped in her story and just as vulnerable to its twists and turns as her fictional new friends.
Where Leonor Will Never Die could easily have been a silly romp through hallmark ’80s action cheese or a winking tribute to why movies are so fun and special, Escobar’s direction and script clarify certain aching, beautiful observations on the intersection between creation and trauma, the bridges between escapism and inner knowledge. While her gruff son and distracted husband do not fully understand or share Leonor’s obsession with “action trash,” even they, by the end of the film — and their madcap attempts to figure out how to snap her out of her disconnected state — realize how necessary it is to tap out of the real world for a few tries at the fantastical and the stylized.
One scene manages to both upend the entire premise of Leonor Will Never Die and clarify its most outstanding observations all at once. As the brutal action yarn that Leonor has been concocting gets underway, the all-important inciting incident arrives: hoodlums senselessly murder the hero’s best friend in cold blood over some arbitrary turf war demonstration. Plain but acceptable revenge-flick impetus, we can all agree. Cue the bloodbath, “I’m thinkin’ I’m back,” etc. Great! But as Leonor finds herself moving through the pastel-tinged world she has created, she runs into the deceased’s mother, and finds herself facing the consequences of her story — a fictional story for her, but a real tragedy for the character she now stands face-to-face with. Echoes of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead can be found in Escobar’s implications that one has a responsibility to their creations, particularly the side characters we tend to forget.
Towards the end, a somewhat telegraphed but no less moving piece of backstory also reveals that the intricacies of this meeting between Leonor and the woman carry weighty resonance for Leonor’s own story. This further allows Leonor Will Never Die to encapsulate the sometimes liberating, sometimes haunting process of letting your own story enter your created fiction. It’s no surprise — and a sensible result — that this film was awarded Sundance’s Special Jury Award for Innovative Spirit this year.
This is a tender and sweet movie in so many ways that it’s easy to forget that it also features some considerably indulgent bloodsport in its protracted shootouts and macho smackdowns — as well as some dazzling, hallucinatory images that spotlight the lush textures of its Philippines setting. Towards the end, Escobar and editor Lawrence Ang over-egg the pudding, snapping into some intensely meta pondering and a whole heap of contrivances that somewhat scupper the whole thing. And yet, there’s an earnestness and a comforting love for filmmaking and film-sharing here that means that any movie-lover will come away smiling. What’s more, there’s an ebullient last-minute credits sequence that will take care of the rest of the naysayers.