Leonor Will Never Die nearly drowns in its own ideas, but this kooky tribute to cinema and the cathartic art of storytelling comes with a distinct Filipino twist.
Leonor Reyes is a retired filmmaker who was once renowned for making a string of successful action films. She lives with her son but their relationship is strained. Rudy has plans to work abroad but he’s worried about his mom – Leonor is preoccupied with buying pirated DVDs and watching movies that she forgets to pay the bills and whatever errand she has to do.
When she finds an ad looking for screenplays, Leonor decides to finish an old script. She gets accidentally hit by an old television on the head while taking a break from writing, which sends her into a coma.
Leonor is transported into her incomplete movie.
Writer-director Martika Ramirez Escobar captures nostalgic tropes through an impressive period recreation. “Ang Pagbabalik ng Kwago” could be a Fernando Poe Jr. movie.
Before slapstick Vice Ganda comedies, adultery dramas, and fantasy rip-offs dominated theaters today, Filipino cornball action movies ruled the box office. In a country where inconvenience, poverty, and corruption are the norm, escapism and wishful thinking provide reprieve. The genre endured for three decades from the 70s – 90s and revolved around one thing: a humble hero defends the downtrodden from corrupt politicians and their nefarious associates.
Leonor’s zany misadventure is this blast from the past – Ronwaldo is a poor yet noble man on a quest to avenge his brother’s murder. Along the way, he falls in love with a pretty dancer in a bar and gains powerful enemies. The wigs look cheap, guns don’t run out of ammo, tables shatter on impact, and the protagonist can avoid bullets.
Back in the “real” world, Rudy tries to find a way to wake up his mom. The line between fiction and reality is blurred, but cinematic choices make it easy for the audience to follow along.
Inside Leonor’s head, you get a 4:3 aspect ratio with retro colors. This switches to the conventional 16:9 when you’re taken back to the outside world.
This movie within a movie is a playful and clever send-up to the cheesy heroics of 80s action films. Leonor follows Ronwaldo closely, watching her script come to life in front of her. The visuals are impressive, the world-building is memorable, and more importantly, the story isn’t another poverty porn.
Ang Babae sa Septic Tank, a movie that made fun of how Filipino indie filmmakers use the plight of the poor to win awards, reflects a disappointing reality that international success in film festivals comes from depravity flicks. Fortunately, Leonor Will Never Die has already changed this.
While all of this is fascinating to watch, the plot turns into a chaotic mess by the second half. The movie blends all of its ideas into a confusing mixture of surreal, tragic, magical, action-packed, and musical. Leonor Will Never Die is already bizarre, to begin with, so this wild turn of events is like watching a car spin out of control until it flips over and stops.
Fortunately, there is a good character set-up that serves as a throughline. At its core, this movie is about a woman and her family dealing with loss and grief. Sheila Francisco turns in an endearing performance as Leonor. The movie made great casting choices that “Ang Pagbabalik ng Kwago” is so believable that I can see it being played in a bus en route to Alabang if it was real.
Leonor Will Never Die is a creative tribute to how cinema can capture people’s imagination, acknowledge their struggles, and within this shared experience, help them find relief. Sure, 80s Pinoy action movies are simplistic, cliched, and predictable, but isn’t that the point?
As “Ang Pagbabalik ng Kwago” reaches its climactic end, Leonor can finally find closure and Rudy finally understands that he has let to his mother end her story.
Leonor Will Never Die
Leonor Will Never Die is a clever tribute to cinema and the cathartic art of storytelling with a distinct Filipino twist.