‘Quezon’s Game’: playing it safe

History is important despite its unfortunate repetitiveness. The way it is retold should be more inventive.

Raymond Bagatsing as Manuel Quezon in a white suit, deep in worried thought, in ‘Quezon’s Game’ (2018).

Films are one solution to the problem of tedious history lessons. This medium of sights and sounds, combined with the factual liberties afforded to dramatizations of historical events, makes the past real, turns staid accounts and lifeless facts into visceral sensations—and refashions the study of history from a mechanical transfer of data into a transformative human experience with emotional gravity. That is the idea, at least.

First there is the complication of films as vehicles for history lessons, lessons being quite a controversial concept in the context of art. Filmmakers are storytellers first and foremost, but in the process of making historical movies, they involuntarily have to take on some of the difficult functions of preaching and teaching. The very act of selecting a subject, and choosing which details about that subject is presented, is a statement bound to generate dissatisfaction one way or another. The filmmaker may choose to present history in a straightforward, agreeable manner, and then be accused of naivety. She might also choose to deconstruct history, to subject the past to critical scrutiny, revealing heroes to be not so heroic, revolutions not so revolutionary—and then be accused of being unpatriotic, of blasphemy. Tasked with telling a story from the past rather than from imagination, the filmmaker cannot then proceed with her work without implicitly staking a position between these two extremes.

At the same time, there are commercial forces binding the film industry that limit the field of potential historical subjects to a handful of marketably familiar characters, and the audience gets a cycle of movies about the same heroes from the same revolution, varying only in attitude, from inspired to cynical to satirical. It takes a minor kind of heroism in itself (or sheer luck or clout) for a filmmaker to break out of this cycle and make a film that tells a different history, a new selection from our catalog of old stories, hopefully one that illuminates the present and guides the future.

And even then, the filmmaker’s work is only half done. The selected history may be of tremendous relevance, but it could be wasted if not depicted effectively. History may be of intrinsic value, but the way it is told and retold is not; the story is priceless, but the storytelling—the style, the form, the delivery—is not beyond judgment of worth. It really is ironic if a film that retells an eminently relevant and refreshing story from history is to suffer from uninspired filmmaking.

Suits and smoke and speeches

Quezon’s Game is about President Manuel Quezon’s efforts to save European Jews from persecution in the years preceding the Second World War, by giving them refuge halfway around the world, in the Philippines, whose government in those times was preoccupied with impending political independence in addition to the looming threat of war. It is a triumphant story often overlooked in the accounts of those times, overshadowed by Quezon’s broader achievements as President of the Commonwealth, and by the tragedy of the war that did come soon after. Perhaps the accounts of the era were shaped by relative arithmetic: Quezon may have saved tens of hundreds of Jews, but that is nothing next to the millions who eventually died in the Holocaust, or even the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who perished in the Battle of Manila alone. Of course, lives could be counted but cannot be compared; this is how the film communicates Quezon’s nobility, by depicting how the president stayed true to his humanitarian principles at great political and personal risk.

The film’s milieu might recall, albeit in a superficial manner, such films as Darkest Hour and The King’s Speech. It was an important time of international conflict when important people in suits, dealing in rooms filled with smoke, delivered speeches—speech itself being their main method of action. Like in those films, Quezon’s Game is anchored by the intriguing figure of a national leader. Manuel Quezon here is played by Raymond Bagatsing, whose charismatic performance includes an interesting accent, not quite historically accurate actually, but nevertheless effective in imparting an old-fashioned sensation for modern ears. Bagatsing is supported by Rachel Alejandro (who last starred in another period film, Ang Larawan) as Quezon’s anxious wife Aurora, and by an ensemble of supporting actors portraying various Filipino, American, and European personages, most notably Billy Ray Gallion as the nervous Jewish businessman Alex Frieder.

Rachel Alejandro as Aurora Quezon, wearing a white dress and looking worried as she observes a party, in ‘Quezon’s Game’ (2018).

The film dresses itself with an ethereal palette: the actors costumed in white suits and dresses, the sets decked out in clean neutral hues, and the color grading calibrated to a washed-out, dreamy look. Quezon’s Game often feels like an animated museum, a live diorama, exalted with the sheen of polished marble and trimmed gardens, but also dulled by the alienating cleanliness of the very same elements. The film is largely if not entirely shot on Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar, the ‘town’ of relocated and reassembled colonial-era houses at Bataan; any viewer with an idea of what pre-war Manila looked like will have difficulty reconciling the film’s backdrop with what it is pretending to be. It is too paradisaical, too artificial, too curated. Of course, in their defense, it was the best the production team could do given the limited budget. But if the filmmakers had more resources, could they have done more, pushed the work close to perfection?

Billy Ray Gallion as Alex Frieder, walking in a white suit beside the river in pre-war Manila, in ‘Quezon’s Game’ (2018).

Going by the evidence of the film’s story and dialogue, it is doubtful. Most of Quezon’s Game’s script is conventional to a fault, seemingly built from a stock inventory of Hollywood film elements from decades ago. An expository early scene follows a courier boy on a bicycle, recklessly making his way through the town to the annoyance of people, as the film’s title is flashed on the screen. To signify that Quezon’s tuberculosis is relapsing, he coughs blood into his handkerchief. The melodramatic score sounds too familiar, breaking its mold only when absolutely needed (as with a pivotal scene, emotionally the film’s strongest, when Quezon sits down with Frieder to cross out names from a list of refugee-applicants because they can only accept so many; here the score adds chilling vocalizations to its orchestral repertoire). The dialogue refuses to rise above the occasion for the majority of the film; it is already well into the third act when the audience is treated to the first intriguing line of the film, when Quezon tells Vice President Sergio Osmeña to “Use the toilet [when you arrive at the White House]… For your countrymen,” the start of an amusing story about racism.

None of these elements are wrong nor bad. They may not be remarkable nor memorable, but they are functional, and it still makes for a fine work that pays off in the moment. The build-up is conventional, but it still works towards an engaging climactic scene (where Quezon and his associates face a State Department inquiry), and an emotional denouement, sealed by the striking image of the refugees’ arrival.

History, archaeology

Quezon’s Game’s main offering is pleasant nostalgia, a gentle serving of feel-good, patriotic remembrance. Vicariously, through Bagatsing’s Quezon, the film provides Filipinos the license to imagine that they had a part in fighting Hitler, in at least resisting his genocidal actions. But the film is more than a reminiscence; the history it presents is of tremendous potential relevance, promising to illuminate the present and guide the future. It is just not apparent, because the film is not interested in easy provocation. Its story is concerned with refugees and closed borders, global-humanitarian missions and isolationist-nationalist interests, principled statesmanship and opportunistic politicking—all of which are as urgent today as they have ever been in the last century. Quezon’s Game, however, merely lays out all these materials on the table, and leaves the rest to the audience. It does not gamble, does not stake out a strong, solid statement itself. It normally would be fine and even desirable in historical films, because the subtle is stronger than the overt, but with its thoroughly conventional approach in storytelling, Quezon’s Game ends up being too benign a work of art.

There were opportunities, and even passing attempts, at more substantial commentary. Like Jerrold Tarog’s films on Antonio Luna and Gregorio del Pilar, Quezon’s Game notes the infighting among the Filipino political class, even bringing in Emilio Aguinaldo in a strange, short-lived, and ultimately distracting subplot. The film does not pursue that plot enough to be significant, and it merely adds to the dubious villainizing of Aguinaldo in recent Filipino cinema.

One of the missed opportunities in Quezon’s Game is the chance to draw a starker line between Quezon, the eloquent, noble, humanitarian statesman, and other politicians of a more parochial, traditional, even vulgar kind. The film could have highlighted an observation by Professor Randy David:

What is curious about Filipino political values, I think, is that they seem to have regressed from being modern, at least in aspiration, to being traditional. The respect reserved for the articulate, the high-minded and the brilliant is at an all-time ebb in our political life. Critics, debaters and people of ideas are often denigrated as useless charlatans.

Legend has it that, like the current Philippine president, Quezon was a sharp curser, and the film gives a glimpse of this version of him. But, unlike the current Philippine president, Quezon was also a legendary orator. He would have been much more interesting as a character in this film had it tried to portray both these versions of the president, but instead it concentrated on a clean, unified depiction of the man, preferring to place him on an unassailable pedestal.

quezons-game-raymond-bagatsing-manuel-quezon-broadcast-camera

The result is a film that preaches to the choir, speaking of important matters in a language only those already indoctrinated will care to understand. It is often the case that a sense of restraint and subtlety renders a film more interesting, by making it more challenging to understand, by concealing its treasures from those who do not have the patience or determination to dig for meaning. Quezon’s Game, however, is told in such an unremarkable, uninspired way that it might have been for the better had it been more explicit. To hope that films can effect change in society is already an act of faith; there is no need for historical films like this to feel like archaeology, where the audience has to leisurely brush dust off buried fragments of treasures. Films are supposed to be a solution to the problem of tedious history lessons, but sometimes they are no more engaging than the prosaic books they are supposed to supplement.

Recommended readings:

The still frames are from the film’s official trailer on Vimeo.

Author: DJ Ramones

Scribbles about films and other fabrications.

8 thoughts on “‘Quezon’s Game’: playing it safe”

    1. I’ve finished my promised reply but it didn’t register. Will try to retrieve it. Meanwhile, can you find time to comment on my fb posts? Would really appreciate it.

  1. Can’t agree more with Prof. David’s curious observation about Filipino values transitioning from modern to traditional. I am apolitical so will focus my take on tradition, many of which I broke at the recent wake of my brother. Basically, I wore red on the first night, used red-ribbon signages for the names of us bereaved, saw or walked home the mourners and cleaned the area whenever it was bereft of people. I smiled when you mentioned Ambeth Ocampo as a reference because he inspired me to parse his piece “Why not Wear Red” and write a subsequent full-blown narrative on the wake, which I published on filcatholic.org. He was largely “responsible” for my impassioned nonconformist stand.

    I’ve nothing against old folks putting in their thoughts on customs supposedly respectful of the dead but I draw the line at preaching and teaching. As in the verboten shade, the preposterous pagpag and the hilarious chick on the coffin glass (albeit irrelevant to my bro’s case). So I wore red on the first night (and every night thereafter when I could rummage like-colored shirts in his cabinet), escorted mourners on their way out, slept on his deathbed whenever I could and cleaned the place up as I pleased.

    Children who kept us company night after night after night amazed me with their ingenious version of sweeping. As soon as the place is emptied (usually the break of dawn), they’d start collecting litter, frog-squat, hands wrapped in plastic (Look, Ma, broomless!)

    Voiceless, I was able to impart to them my tradition nix; soundless, they effected my example. What better, subtler way to thwart tradition that does not sense make.

    If Quezon, the film, was clinical, my brother’s wake was everything it was not. There is no need even to further the squalor of the place. Nor to “use the toilet” for there was no water line and the solitary electrical outlet had to breed tentacles to really light it up. But it was kosher for the village where my brothers live, the children’s parents knew where the former are and the general conversation was austere, simple and devoid of probing questions about the dead. There was no tradition at all, just a modern take on a poor wake.

    I’d have made a movie out of it, had I the means and the skill for the gothic.

    1. Thank you very much for sharing this story, I’m sure it would make for at least an interesting short film. Condolences by the way, though from your story, I guess you handled your brother’s passing well.

      I read Ambeth Ocampo’s ‘Why not red at a wake?’ (2019-05-17), the column you were referring to. I don’t read him often; the only columnists I follow are Professors Michael Tan and Randy David. Prof./Chancellor Michael Tan in particular, being a Filipino-Chinese anthropologist, has taught me a lot (through his column) about the practices that Ocampo talks about in his own column.

      I also read your commentary on Ocampo’s piece. Your last point is a good one. Traditions help us cope with difficult life events by being fixed rules, the execution of which takes our minds off more painful thoughts, but also by being safe (i.e. last-resort) topics to talk about when the need for idle, mindless chatter comes up, which of course happens inevitably in the quiet hours at a wake.

      1. I like Michael Tan, too. His outputs are satisfyingly local, matter-of-fact and enlightening. I assumed if he did what Ambeth wrote, there’d have been more inputs than I’d surely appreciate. And write more about.

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