How ‘Leonor Will Never Die’ Brilliantly Reworks the Filipino Action Film

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Perhaps that’s to be expected given that Escobar was practically raised on those same action films, began shooting home movies when she was seven, and later revered the works of noted reality-tinkerers Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, and Michel Gondry. But there’s a deeper meaning to Leonor Will Never Die’s layered narrative. “It’s essentially about an existential crisis,” she says of her feature directorial debut, “and not knowing how to write our own lives and trying to write it through the people we meet along the way.”

Seasoned theater performer Sheila Francisco—best known for playing Bloody Mary in an early-2000s production of South Pacific on the West End—is the titular character, her very first lead film role. She was skeptical when she first heard about the project. “I didn’t want to do it because I just didn’t understand it,” she says with a wide, sparkling grin, joining Escobar on the video call. “[The filmmakers] were saying, ‘We plan to do an action movie, and you are going to be the action star.’”

The actor acknowledges that “Filipinos have a fascination for action films, especially old action films. But,” she chuckles, “I’ve never seen a female action hero, a mature female action hero. And for somebody like me, you play the mom, the best friend, the funny woman. I never thought that I would star in a movie at my age.”

Yet Francisco was won over by the then 21-year-old director’s impassioned pitch. “Here’s this very young girl who wants to do a movie with a much older woman playing an action star,” she says. “I was curious what she would do with it.”  

Director Martika Ramirez Escobar.Photo: Courtesy of Martika Ramirez Escobar.

Escobar has long been fascinated by grandmas. “My own sees so much beauty in life, which is the opposite of what I see. I often think that life sucks, but when I talk to her, she redeems that concept.” So the filmmaker eventually came to wonder: Why aren’t there grandmas starring in action films? She saw the chance to offer a new take on a genre known for its machismo. “We wanted to show how a person can face violence and solve problems through the tender eyes of a woman,” Escobar says.

Genre films tend to reflect wider anxieties, and when Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, films became a form of propaganda, enforced through a government film-censorship board for the next 14 years. It’s no coincidence that the country’s action films were at the height of their popularity in those years. “It was the time when Filipinos felt the most helpless,” Escobar explains. “To see heroes on screen gave them comfort.”  

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