Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Sundance ’22: Leonor Will Never Die

In the 1970s, Roger Corman started shooting films in the Philippines, because they already had an established exploitation movie industry that worked fast, cheap, and without excessively cumbersome safety regulations. Back in the day, Leonor Reyes wrote the scripts. She has been retired for years, but serious trashy movie fans still remember her. Of course, that won’t pay the bills, so she tries to pull out her typewriter again. Unfortunately, a freak accident submerges her in the world of her prospective script in Martika Ramirez Escobar’s Leonor Will Never Die, which premiered at this year’s Sundance.

Sadly, Reyes’ golden-boy son Ronwaldo died, but he still quietly haunts (or watches over) the family, while she is stuck living with the other one, Rudie. She and her husband Valentin split-up, but he remains a constant presence in the neighborhood. With their power on the verge of disconnection, Leonor dusts off an old unfinished screenplay, but she still struggles to finish it. Then she gets bonked on the noggin, in a suitably unlikely manner, and proceeds down the rabbit hole into her screenplay.

Suddenly, she befriends and mothers Ronwaldo, the vengeful hero of her film, transparently (but not identically) based on her late namesake son, as well as Majestika, his new stripper girlfriend, whom he saved from the corrupt mayor. Meanwhile, Rudie desperately tries to talk her out of her coma, as the other Ronwaldo looks on and occasionally offers some advice.

might sound like the Filipino exploitation equivalent of light and frothy fantasies like Ana Maria in Novela Land and Delirious with John Candy, but it is considerably darker and more meta. The cool thing about Escobar’s film is that it is true to sweaty, testosterone-driven genre it portrays. That means Reyes very definitely finds herself surrounded by violence and sleaze, which might limit the film’s appeal.

However, Escobar consistently finds ways to surprise the viewer in the third act, breaking down barriers between realities and self-referring like all get-out. There is also some brilliant work from cinematographer Carlos Mauricio and production designer Eero Francisco recreating the look, texture, and ambiance of vintage 1970s Filipino grindhouse.

Sheila Francisco makes a believably troublesome mother as Reyes. She would be cool to talk movies with, but viewers can’t help sympathizing with poor Rudie. Frequently shirtless Rocky Salumbides is perfect as the vengeance-seeking screenplay Ronwaldo, while Alan Bautista portrays her ex, Valentin, with surprising complexity and understanding.

This film is not cute at all, but it delivers a number of genre payoffs and the meta-meta-ness only starts to get tired at the very, very end (which is saying something when it comes to reality-warping films). Recommended for fans of good old-fashioned trashy ‘70s payback movies,
Leonor Will Never Die premiered at this year’s Sundance.