In an uncertain time, crass remarks, bigotry, fear mongering, and outright lies have supplanted statesmanship. Revered by fanatics, a mercurial overlord rules, while a divided nation watches on. With the rest of the world keeping a cautious distance, the leader consolidates his power, placing allies in key positions as he prepares to enact his horrific plan.
Eight decades later, not much has changed.
Therein lies the relevance of Quezon’s Game, the new film from Matthew Rosen detailing the role President Manuel Quezon and the Philippines had in shining a beacon of hope on one of Europe’s darkest hours.
The film opens in 1938. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime is at the height of its powers, the wheels on his intended Holocaust moving inexorably forward. Half a world away, President Manuel Quezon (Raymond Bagatsing, TV’s Pusong Ligaw) is working to facilitate the Philippines’ pending exit from American Rule, while spending his evenings mixing business and pleasure over poker at the Hotel de Oriente.
Shortly after a ceremony unveiling his plans for the Philippines’ new capital city, President Quezon is informed of Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jewish people. However, unbeknownst to most, the President’s previously treated-tuberculosis has returned, and his days are numbered. With his health in decline, and his hands tied by politics and bureaucracy, the President will risk everything to do what he believes is right.
A TALE OF TWO QUEZONS
By and large, Bagatsing as Quezon is the glue that holds the film together. Appearing in nearly every scene, his portrayal embodies an idea of Quezon, rather than any sort of impersonation, his confidence palpable as leader of the Filipino people. While his accent tends to slip in places, it is a powerful performance reflective of the actor’s theater experience. Truth be told, given the dialogue-heavy nature of the material, and the acting choices of the majority of the cast, it honestly wouldn’t be difficult to imagine Quezon’s Game performed as an actual stage play.
If one is to subscribe to the adage that behind every great man is a woman, that woman here is undoubtedly First Lady Aurora Quezon (Rachel Alejandro, Ang Larawan). Taking up far less screen time than Bagatsing, Alejandro makes the most of what have easily been a thankless role, the latter juxtaposing a naturalistic style with the former’s theatricality. In their capable hands, the closed-door scenes between the President and his wife provide the film with a distinct emotional core, doing more to humanize Quezon than any number of sequences of his self-doubt or implied infidelity.
A LITTLE HELP FROM HIS FRIENDS
Of course, Quezon wasn’t alone in his actions, being aided by U.S. High Commissioner Paul McNutt (James Paoleli) and tenacious U.S. Army Lt. Col. (and future President) Dwight D. Eisenhower (David Bianco). The skepticism the poker buddies drew from their request for 10,000 visas raised many number of eyebrows in the U.S Senate, to say nothing of the ire of Quezon’s political allies back home.
Curiously, the production’s foreign cast members don’t fare as well as Bagatsing, displaying a slight awkwardness in their line delivery. While this is often the case for western actors in Asian films (due to scripts being written in another language before translated into English), one can’t imagine that having happened here, as the majority of the film is in English, and director Matthew Rosen himself is English.
TIME AND PLACE
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With Quezon’s Game moving from the streets of Nazi Germany to the smoke-filled rooms of Manila’s Hotel de Oriente and the halls of Malacañang Palace itself, the filmmakers had their work cut out for them in recreating a bygone age; given that 80% of Manila was devastated by the end of World War II (with destruction second only to that of Warsaw), options for shooting locations were understandably limited.
Here, the painstakingly-restored Spanish-Filipino houses of the Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar hotel in Batanes stand in for Old Manila, to varying results, as everything either looks brand new (the buildings), or is so clearly borrowed (rusty appliances notwithstanding, the Jewish Frieder brothers really shouldn’t have had to share Manila’s only car with members of the Nazi party) as to be distracting.
While it is understandable that the filmmakers were working on a limited budget, the fresh paint and immaculately-manicured lawns have the unintentional effect of resembling a theme park version of the capital. Despite modern fixtures, finishes, and even furniture popping into view every now and then, the sincerity behind the filmmakers’ attempt is commendable.
Sadly, the same can’t be said of the costumes. Here, more than anywhere else, the lack of blockbuster backing enjoyed by the likes of Heneral Luna (2015) or Goyo (2018) necessitates a healthy suspension of disbelief: Quezon’s Game would have us believe that neither the President nor his compatriots had anything to wear other than white three-piece suits with questionable tailoring for the roughly two years that the film takes place in. Even secondary characters, such as the film’s lone SS Officer, acting out of the fictitious German Embassy (as a territory of the United States, foreign nations only had consulate offices in Manila; their embassies were in Washington) doesn’t escape unscathed – his uniform would make Hugo Boss weep.
Thankfully, the story and performances make up for the production’s sartorial lapses.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
When one goes into the specifics of Quezon’s actions, as well as their ultimate humanitarian outcome, the story takes on such a scale that it is downright remarkable that no one has done a film on this topic before now. Where films like Schindler’s List (1993) put viewers on the ground, Quezon’s Game concerns itself with the under-the-table deals and negotiations that had to take place for Quezon to accomplish his mission.
At the time, the United States hadn’t yet committed to a position in the World War to come, more concerned with its colonial interests under threat from Imperial Japan than to bother with the racist ravings of a madman. As far as Uncle Sam was concerned, they would sit back and observe from a distance as the global powers aligned themselves with or against Hitler, so there was no way they were going to let one of their colonies just accept thousands of refugees.
With Manuel Quezon balancing the needs of the government with the needs of the Filipino people on the road to true independence, his desire to aid the Jews is seen as a frivolous enterprise, and one dangerous to his political career. Nevertheless, Quezon sticks to his guns, both out of a sense of obligation to help his fellow man, and his desire to leave behind a legacy of having done something good with his time in office.
A LASTING LEGACY
“Could I have done more?” a clearly-ailing Quezon asks Aurora, a question reflective of the statesman’s impending death. Presented at the film’s beginning and end, the filmmakers’ answer to the question is clear, as well as one supported by the history books: In 1939, following months of lobbying, backroom deals, and opposition on both sides of the Pacific, Manuel Quezon was able to save the lives of over 1200 Jews from certain death at the hand of the Nazis. In 2009, the feat was commemorated with the inauguration of an “Open Doors” monument in Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Park, and the descendants of the survivors live on, all thanks to the efforts of President Quezon.
THE BOTTOM LINE
With the success of films like Heneral Luna and Goyo overcoming Filipinos’ supposed apathy towards the past, it is clear that there is a market for well-made stories chronicling the exploits of Philippine historical figures. Production limitations and acting quirks aside, Quezon’s Game is remarkable, not only for Bagatsing’s bravura turn as Quezon, but for the incredible, impossible true story it recounts.
While clearly set in the 1930s, Quezon’s Game’s relevance to the times we live in is unmistakable, presenting a chapter of our history that every Filipino should take a chance to see, set into motion by a statesman who actually cared about his nation, its people and their place in the world. In a time of increasing institutional intolerance, tribalism, and personality-based politics, it makes one proud to know that the Filipino people once had a leader like that.
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