Midway through Martika Ramirez Escobar’s reality-bending fantasy Leonor Will Never Die, Leonor (Sheila Francisco), an aging action screenwriter, steps outside for a smoke. Leonor is in denial about the severity of her financial situation, and tension over an unpaid electric bill has led to arguments between her and her son Rudy (Bong Cabrera), who tells his mom that she needs to get her head out of the clouds. But it’s a conk on the noggin that ends up bringing the family together, after Leonor is knocked into a coma by a TV — another source of conflict in her household — falling from an upstairs neighbor’s window.
That cartoon scenario sums up what’s going on thematically in this genre-bending film, a riff on The Wizard of Oz by way of Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” video. The story begins in modern-day Manila, where endearing, grandmotherly protagonist Leonor spends her days lost in TV serials and old action films. Leonor was a big name in the movies in the ’80s and ’90s, but she retreated from filmmaking 10 years ago after an accident on the set killed her eldest son, Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon). She’s been holed up in her house ever since, bickering with Rudy and spending quiet afternoons sitting with Ronwaldo’s ghost.
Ronwaldo, who has been dead for quite some time, is a character in the movie, differentiated from his living relatives only by the fact that he’s slightly transparent. This also reveals something about Leonor Will Never Die. The boundaries between life and death are permeable in Leonor’s world, and so are the ones between imagination and reality. The film is dotted with faux-VHS action-movie sequences, taken from an unfinished screenplay Leonor unearths shortly before her accident. While her body lies comatose, her spirit enters the world of her film, and she becomes both the writer of the film and a character in her own story. (In a warm, amusing touch, the characters in Leonor’s movie all love her, but they can’t explain why.)
Although Leonor Will Never Die pays loving tribute to the ragtag violence of Filipino action cinema, it’s equally influenced by quirky indie meta-comedy. Leonor’s trip over the rainbow and into her screenplay has a Being John Malkovich quality — take, for example, a scene where Rudy dives into the TV set mounted to the ceiling of a hospital waiting room, on a mission to save his mother. At times, the film pulls back even further to reveal its own making, incorporating behind-the-scenes footage into the story. Toward the end of the story, writer-director Escobar makes herself a character in her movie about a filmmaker who becomes a character in her movie, appearing in an interlude set during a late-night editing session, where she debates how to end the film.
Escobar is a cinematographer by trade, and she and her crew have a lot of fun playing with different cameras, shooting styles, and formats — the action-movie scenes are filmed in 4:3, for example. They all go into creating the layers of reality in this film. The “real world” is composed of muted colors and long, unbroken wide shots, while the action-movie reality is grimier, grainier, and more colorful. The action scenes make tongue-in-cheek use of abrupt zooms and repeated action shots, sometimes reusing an especially badass punch three or four times. But the funniest of these moments comes when the hero of the movie, also named Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides), reaches the end of Leonor’s unfinished script. Midway through a chase scene, he stops and turns around with a confused look on his face, looking up at the sky in search of direction.
Beyond just being a fun aesthetic exercise, these action-movie tributes also present a nostalgic longing for a simpler world — one where the machine guns are plastic, good guys and bad guys are easily distinguishable from one another, and any problem can be solved with a roundhouse kick. When the themes get heavy, the absurdity of the action-movie characters’ wigs and line readings keeps the tone light. Even the simple fact that Leonor is a woman has a wistful quality to it: Escobar’s version of the Filipino film industry is a matriarchy controlled by powerful women, a fantasy that stands in sharp contrast to the hyper-macho historical reality.
Leonor Will Never Die’s scrappiness does have its downsides. The story meanders its way around each new plot point as it’s presented, and combined with the multimedia shooting style, it has a loose, collage-like quality. Viewers’ tolerance for the approach may vary. And while Escobar’s honesty is refreshing when she admits on screen that she doesn’t know how to finish the film, the musical-number ending does feel a little tacked on. Still, Escobar’s open-hearted embrace of the process just adds to the movie’s charm. A sense of play and joyful collaboration permeates Leonor Will Never Die, even as it engages with serious issues of life, death, and legacy. It reminds us that love, like creativity, is a living thing, and that both are meant to be shared.
Leonor Will Never Die opens in limited release Nov. 25, with a nationwide expansion throughout December.