Leonor Will Never Die is a sweetly thoughtful drama disguised as loving genre throwback, with perhaps a pinch of cannier discourse creeping beneath its surface.
Heavy genre heads will know of the legacy of Filipino action: extra low-budget, scrappy productions that tended to mimic Western action films and cop thrillers. Sometimes you had stuff produced for the local market, like the comedic Rambo knock-off No Blood No Surrender, and at other times you had the likes of legendary filmmakers such as Eddie Romero or Cirio Santiago making Mad Max rip-offs or girls-in-prison trash to export to American drive-ins. Either way, it’s a ripe backdrop for Martika Ramirez Escobar’s Leonor Will Never Die, a mostly sweet but occasionally acidic bit of self-reflexiveness.
Leonor (Sheila Francisco) is an elderly, long-retired filmmaker living in Manila. She struggles to pay the bills, as her dumb-dumb hectoring son Rudie (Bong Cabrera) keeps reminding her. Her good son, the deceased Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides), appears to her in spirit form and was also the inspiration for a final, unfinished film called The Return of Kwago. When Leonor spots a flyer for a screenwriting contest, she’s inspired to channel all of her baggage into completing Kwago, but that plan gets interrupted when a quarreling neighbor couple accidentally drops a TV on Leonor’s head, sending her into a coma, and treating us to a fugue state in which Leonor inhabits the fantasy world of the action films she spent a career cranking out, and one where her real-life friends and family have goofball counterparts.
The recreation of vintage Pinoy action cinema here is outstanding. Aside from the obvious shift to a VHS-friendly 4:3 aspect ratio, the compositions and editing have a distinctly B-grade sheen, and the action sequences are filled with junky prop machine guns, endless squibs, and dangerous-looking stunts. As Leonor finds herself trapped in this diabolical headspace, of course she finds opportunities to exorcize some of her personal demons; there’s a little bit of Everything Everywhere All At Once at work here, centering a character stuck in a loop of her own psychic construction. Further, as Leonor realizes that maybe she’s a bit of a villain in her own creations, putting the characters she creates through endless, cruel jeopardy, it’s tempting to ascribe some political context to the film. Is Leonor a stand-in for Filipino strongman leaders like Marcos or Duterte? That may be a stretch, but if Leonor Will Not Die isn’t actually more than a sweetly thoughtful drama disguised as a lovingly recreated genre throwback, that’s perfectly fine. If it’s up to something a little more canny, so much the better.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 5.