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Movie review: 'Leonor Will Never Die' proves appeal of Pinoy humor

Sheila Francisco stars in the Martika Escobar film ‘Leonor Will Never Die’

Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) used to write screenplays for action movies in her heyday. Now retired, she was separated from her husband Valentin (Allan Bautista) who was running as a local politician. She now lived with her son Rudie (Bong Cabrera) who was helping his father's electoral campaign while planning to work abroad. Her other son Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon) tragically died as a young man in his prime, and visited his family as a ghost. 

When Leonor saw an ad for a scriptwriting contest in the paper, she started working on one of her old unfinished scripts, "Ang Pagbabalik ng Kuwago." It was about a brawny hero also named Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides) who rescued damsel in distress Isabella (Rea Molina) from her gangster boyfriend Ricardo (Ryan Eigenmann). 

One day, a freak accident rendered Leonor comatose, then she began seeing herself in the movie she was writing.

Despite the rather depressing synopsis, this film by Martika Ramirez Escobar (her debut feature) was actually one delightful, wistful and very entertaining Filipino film. From a melodramatic start, it became a film within a film right at the opening credits, and that's where the fun began. We knew the parallel contents were bound to intersect at some point, but when that absurd moment came, it was totally out-of-the-box (in a manner of speaking).

Fans of the Philippine theater scene will definitely enjoy this film. Lead actress Sheila Francisco is a veteran triple threat, best known now as Tiya Dely in the hit musical "Ang Huling El Bimbo" (2019). Kind and motherly, her Leonor is easy to empathize with as she entered her own dual-verse (like Michelle Yeoh did in her multiverse). Left to her own devices, Leonor creatively charted her own course like she rewrote her scripts, and we root her on. 

The actors playing Leonor's sons Bong Cabrera and Anthony Falcon are also stage actors (notably in several Virgin Labfest plays) aside from being indie film actors. Cabrera's Rudie may be annoying at first, but he eventually proved how much he cared for his mother. Stage actresses Madeleine Nicolas (as a Chinoy producer), Roselyn Perez (as a screen mother) and Tami Monsod (as a scene-stealing doctor) also make unexpected appearances.

Model-turned-actor Rocky Salumbides went all out as the buff blue-collar movie hero Ronwaldo. This film waxed nostalgic for a once-popular movie genre of Filipino films -- the action film. Salumbides did all the classic hero moves -- the exaggerated tumbling, the rapid-fire punching, even the cheesy passes on his leading lady. Meanwhile, Ryan Eigenmann and Dido de la Paz did all the classic villain shoot-up or torture moves against him.

This film premiered at the World Cinema Dramatic Competition of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, even winning the Special Jury Prize for Innovative Spirit. This was actually a pleasant surprise because its humor was based on uniquely Pinoy pop culture of the over-the-top Fernando Poe Jr.-style action movies, the context of which foreigners might not get at all. Thankfully they did, proving that Filipino humor can also have international appeal. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."

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