“Quezon’s Game:” Movie Review
Not many Filipinos know about how President Manuel Quezon and his American poker buddies tried to shelter as much as 10,000 Jews prior to the Holocaust. The story is so compelling that in 2009, Israel erected the “Open Doors” monument in remembrance of that one act. It is also the reason why Israel grants visa-free access to all Filipinos, a gesture of gratitude for the Philippines’ opening of its doors to all Jews at a time when the rest of the world rejected them.
“Quezon’s Game” is a film that was inspired by the events that took place in the late 1930s. The movie opens with a flash forward scene where Manuel and Aurora Quezon are viewing for the first time a reel showing the horrors of the Holocaust in 1944. “Could I have done more?” asks Manuel, a filmographic parallel to Oskar Schindler’s “I could have gotten more out.” But a stark difference between the two movies is that Oskar Schindler was depicted as an amoral industrialist who only realized he could have done more in the end, while Manuel Quezon is depicted as a moralist statesman who in the end questioned whether what he had done was enough.
The movie has the scope and enormity of “Schindler’s List” but unlike it, it was set on the opposite side of the world – well away from the ghettos, away from European Jews, away from Hitler. And yet, without all these seemingly essential elements needed to tell a deeply moving story about the Jewish predicament in the 1930s to 1940s, “Quezon’s Game” delivers the same powerful message against racism, bigotry, and discrimination.
The movie is set in Manila in the 1930s. Back then, Manila was this genteel city with fine walks and parks, with Art Deco style in vogue and best captured in buildings’ architecture. Despite these effects, there was still a sense of busy-ness about the city: there were Tranvias, cars, horses, and street vendors. But for the film, looking for such a location was a gargantuan challenge, with Manila’s continual destruction of historic buildings and structures. Much of the film’s “Manila” was shot in Las Casas in Bataan, a place where rows of perfectly conserved heritage houses are showcased. The location is beautiful and probably helped the film win many awards, but it was the only element that felt off in the film, at no fault of the producers. The setting made it look like Quezon and company were in the 18th century vacationing somewhere far from Manila, far from urban dwellings, and therefore, far from reality.
Matthew Rosen, the film’s director, spent over three months just on casting. “I strongly believe in the saying that 90 percent of directing a movie is about casting. The remaining 10 percent is the time you spend being on the set,” said Rosen. As far as the characters for Manuel Quezon (played by Raymond Bagatsing) and Aurora Quezon (played by Rachel Alejandro), the casting was perfect. Bagatsing spent many days immersing into the character of Quezon, studying his mannerisms, voice, and the way he talked by watching YouTube videos of Manuel Quezon over and over. The result: an eerie and chilling impersonation of the former president, whom he also strikingly resembles.
Meanwhile, Alejandro, who plays Aurora Quezon, captures the regal, demure, yet stately persona of the first lady. Hers was a character who knows how to act in support of the stature of her husband. While we have no videos of Aurora to study, we know that she was a kind, gentle woman who was strict and sometimes stubborn to a fault, things that came out in the film.
“Quezon’s Game” is a very compelling and deeply moving film largely because of the genius of its storytelling. During its VIP premiere attended by members of media and high-profile personalities, everybody was in tears by the end of the film. The film did not need much violence or drama to elicit emotion from the audience. A good story does that without sacrificing so much of historical accuracy. The film’s director, Matthew Rosen, is a British national who is also Jewish, which is probably why the film’s storytelling was so compelling. He understood that this movie demands to be as well-known as any other story about the plight of the Jews, and more important, he felt the need for Filipinos to be proud of their largest moral victory ever done for humanity in those dark times. Rosen has been living in the Philippines since 1986.
Verdict: Must Watch “Quezon’s Game”
Historically, history films don’t do well in Philippine cinemas, but “Quezon’s Game” is one of those films expected to break that notion.
As of this writing, “Quezon’s Game” has won 23 awards and recognitions from international film festivals overseas, including Remi Award for Best Foreign Feature, Best Director, Best Art Design, and Best Producers.
Quezon’s Game will be shown on May 29, 2019 in Philippine cinemas nationwide.