Leonor Will Never Die (Ang Pagbabalik ng Kwago, Martika Ramirez Escobar, 2022)

A grief-stricken screenwriter resolves to write her way out of self-imposed inertia while trapped in a world of her own creation in Martika Ramirez Escobar’s meta dramedy Leonor Will Never Die (Ang Pagbabalik ng Kwago). Drawing inspiration from the action exploitation films of the 1980s, the film asks some big questions about grief and agency and the role stories play in our lives while celebrating a sense of community in cinema along with the accidental immortality it may grant. 

Once a successful screenwriter of action films, Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) is now an elderly lady who has largely shut herself away following the tragic death of her eldest son, Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon). Her youngest, Rudie (Bong Cabrera), still lives with her but as she later reveals there is distance between them and a sort of repellant dependency in which each resents the other and longs for freedom while simultaneously afraid to chase it. When Leonor “forgets” to pay her electricity bill and is berated by Rudie, she is handed a newspaper by the ghost of Ronwaldo containing an ad for a screenplay competition and decides to dust off the script she broke off when he died. While taking a cigarette break, she is hit on the head by a flying TV thrown out by the man next-door fed up with his wife’s addiction to soap operas and finds herself falling into the world of the film hoping she can save the hero, also named Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides), from his tragic fate. 

Shifting into a grainy 4:3 with mono aural sound, Escobar perfectly recreates the world of retro action drama but subtly updates it from its Marcos-era backdrop in replacing activists with drug users, her authoritarian thugs carrying out extrajudicial killings for reasons of intimidation. The movie Ronwaldo is set on revenge against a corrupt mayor and his vigilante son who shot his brother and then placed a pistol and a small packet of drugs next to the body, resisting authoritarianism in a way it may not have actually been possible to do so directly in the movies of the past. In any case, Leonor slips into her own screenplay as an awkward omnipotent force writing as she goes but struggling with her own role and agency before picking up a hammer and venturing into danger to rescue the hero and his love interest herself.  

From the other side of the screen, Rudie asks her if she’d be OK with someone else finishing her screenplay which is in a way asking her if she’s alright with her final decisions being made for her. That might be what Leonor is trying to decide for herself by rewriting in real time, searching for the right ending for her life’s story. Rudie had resented his mother, blaming her for keeping him behind when he planned to apply for an overseas work visa to join his boyfriend abroad but she wonders if he isn’t just using her as an excuse while afraid to take the risk. She by turn insists she can manage alone, but is perhaps afraid she can’t which, along with the grief she feels over Ronwaldo’s death, leads her to push him away. 

Leonor’s coma perhaps brings them both clarity that allows them to discover what it is they really want, Rudie finally handing agency back to his mother in telling her do what she has to do in a world of her own creation while she tells both her sons to be sure they write their own lives. The doctor had told Rudie that Leonor was trapped in a world between sleeping and waking and that you can’t wake someone who is not asleep, they will have to find a way to escape by themselves something which in one way or another Leonor perhaps does coming to terms with Ronwaldo’s death and breaking free of her grief through recapturing her creative spirit if writing a poetic end for herself. Then again as an authorial voice breaks through, life is never as simple as narrative and we’re rarely given the opportunity to edit our own stories or decide the way in which they end, perhaps Leonor isn’t either but even so passes into a world of joy and song in which there are no real endings only a great expanse of cinema. Charmingly surreal and filled with good humour, Leonor Will Never Die is at once the story of an old woman rediscovering herself while letting go of her grief and a celebration of escapist pleasures as paths towards self actualisation. 

Leonor Will Never Die screens in Amsterdam on 30th October as part of this year’s Imagine Fantastic Film Festival.

US release trailer (English subtitles)

The Roundup (범죄도시 2, Lee Sang-yong, 2022)

Force of justice Ma Seok-do returns five years after The Outlaws to right more wrongs in jet-setting action comedy, The Roundup (범죄도시 2, Beomjoidosi 2). By this stage in his career, actor Ma Dong-seok has succeeded in creating a persona for himself as a loveable bruiser whose violence is just a way of being and always in service of a greater good. These are qualities very much in play as Seok-do (Ma Dong-seok) finds himself defending the interests of Korean citizens abroad against crooks the cops failed to catch at home.

Seok-do is however in the dog house for being accused of using excessive force in the papers after neutralising a hostage incident in a convenience store. To keep him off the front pages, the higher ups decide to send him on a mini mission abroad bringing home a Korean fugitive who has apparently turned himself in to the Vietnamese authorities. Given that this is quite an odd thing to do and the criminal’s explanation that he was suddenly overcome with guilt and wanted to repay his debt to society doesn’t ring true, Seok-do smells a rat. As he discovers, it all points back to the kidnapping and murder of a rich man’s son by vicious gangster Hae-sang (Son Seok-koo) who preys on unsuspecting tourists. Rather than get the police involved, the boy’s father has decided to hire a bunch of mercenaries to take revenge further destabilising the local underworld in Ho Chi Min City. 

It has to be said that there is something a little uncomfortable in the quasi-nationalist posturing of the film’s central premise. Korea has effectively been exporting crime by allowing dangerous criminals to flee abroad where the law can’t touch them. Korean crooks then make trouble for Korean tourists even if not quite to the extent of Hae-sang, all of which ignores the effects on the local Vietnamese population in concentrating on Korean on Korean crime. At the end of the film it’s even suggested that Korean police officers might be dispatched to other areas of Asia to look after Korean tourists which shows a certain lack of respect for national sovereignties while more or less letting the same police officers off the hook for failing to catch criminals in Korea or address the issues which led to them entering lives of crime. A maverick cop, Seok-do does rather throw his weight around in a foreign country, caring little for protocol and threatening to spark a diplomatic incident every few seconds. 

Then again he is just particularly keen on shutting down Hae-sang and exposing him for his heinous acts, cleaning up a mess that has ended up spilling over abroad. Ironically enough, the bereaved father, Choi (Nam Moon-cheol), maybe a powerful CEO but he made his money loansharking and is pretty much a petty gangster himself so of course he wants personal vengeance once again uncomfortably hiring mercenaries from China. Meanwhile, Seok-do ends up enlisting the help of a formerly undocumented migrant when Choi ends up getting kidnapped himself by a cornered Hae-sang.

In any case, Seok-do more than holds his own against the bloodthirsty villains in a series of well choreographed action sequences culminating in a one-on-one showdown on a bus. Much of Ma’s appeal lies in his effortless ability to take down bad guys which he does a plenty, even dispatching one via escalator to his waiting teammates below. Even so, he knows not to take himself too seriously and is keen to cede screen time to the ensemble allowing a gentle camaraderie to appear among his squad members despite their separation while Seok-do and the Captain are in Vietnam trying to have a covert holiday and the rest of the team are left behind to do regular admin work in the office. Though it may present some rather uncomfortable ideas in a kind of Korean exceptionalism that implies a degree of superiority over and disregard towards other Asian nations, the film is nevertheless a charming retro action comedy and perfect showcase for the charismatic star as his no-nonsense policeman makes a point of slapping down bad guys and fighting international crime while generally living his best life hanging out with similarly justice-orientated buddies. 

The Roundup screens in Amsterdam on 27th October & 4th November as part of this year’s Imagine Fantastic Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)