‘Quezon’s Game’ review: Untold accounts of empathy and nationalism

Quezon’s Game a.k.a. the Philippines’ version of ‘Schindler’s List’ occasionally strains in execution but it’s definitely profoundly moving when needed.

Prior to this film, I humbly confess that I only know two facts about the late president Manuel L. Quezon: 1.) He secured the Philippine Independence law from the United States; and 2.) His face is printed on the face of the twenty peso bill, so I practically see his face almost everyday of my life. To learn here that MLQ is responsible for the freedom of 1,200 jews from Adolf Hitler’s holocaust – not a spoiler, it’s history – brings a renewed sense of Filipino pride to my veins. Quezon’s Game has flaws in its execution but it’s probably the most politically and socially relevant local film you’ll see this year. It reminds us how noble the Filipinos are – a nation that is willing to lend a helping hand when no one even bothers to lift a finger. It reminds us of the type of leaders that we need to progress, especially today when our government is riddled by greed, bigotry, discrimination and violence.

The film chronicles an obscure chapter in MLQ’s administration which is mostly based on the theses and dissertations made by Americans, as well as correspondences from the descendants of German tobacco industrialists Alex and Herbert Frieder (who brought the Jews’ impending fate to MLQ’s attention). I’m no historian but suffice to say, it’s best to digest this film with a grain of salt.

There’s more to here than historical accuracy, though. Whereas Schindler’s List is about a German who turns his back against the Nazi regime, Quezon’s Game plays on the perspective of a benevolent outsider, which makes it more admirable. It puts into spotlight MLQ’s humanitarian work while he tries to navigate the conflicting interests of America and his Filipino colleagues. To do so, he needs to convince a lot of people to align with his way of thinking. Factor in the relapse of his tuberculosis, MLQ is on a borrowed time to fulfill his legacy.

Colonel Dwight Eisenhower (David Bianco) and Manuel L. Quezon (Raymond Bagatsing) plans on rescuing the Jews in ‘Quezon’s Game.’

Sure, Quezon’s Game occasionally feels like a glorification of its titular hero with minimal flaws (including his lapses in logic and hints at adultery) but the film makes sure that it earns the pedestal that he’s placed on. Much of it falls into Raymond Bagatsing’s masterful performance. The actor fully captures the soul of MLQ – his charismatic personality, his dignified stature, his self-righteous yet fragile ego, his unwavering morals and his compassionate heart. He injects subtlety in his accents and mannerisms in such a way that he’s never reduced to a shallow impersonation. Not to mention his striking resemblance, the result is a surreal personification of the man that we’re used to see in old clips and pictures.

Serving as an anchor to MLQ’s idealism, thespian Rachel Alejandro never disappoints as the patient and enduring wife Aurora. Her moments with Bagatsing highlight the lovely parts of the script that features back and forth code-switching (Filipino, Spanish and English). Billy Ray Gallion delivers a strong performance as Alex Frieder who has the most heartbreaking character arc. With only a limited number of visas that can be issued, he carries the horrible task of choosing which among his countrymen will be spared from the upcoming genocide.

MLQ lures Lt. Ebner for a negotiation with Colonel Dwight Eisenhower and Alex Frieder.

Other key players to this political game includes would-be US President Dwight Eisenhower (David Bianco) and Philippine high commissioner Paul McNutt (James Paoleli) who defied the US State Department in support with MLQ; Nacionalista party members/ future Philippine presidents Sergio Osmeña (Audie Gemora) and Manuel Roxas (Nor Domingo) who question MLQ’s risky decision due to the misgivings that it will give to their administration; and Nazi officer Lt. Alan Ebner (Kevin Kraemer) as the film’s unwelcoming secondary villain – America’s imperialist government and its silly immigration policy is the main hurdle here.

For a film that’s filled with intellectual banters mostly set at close quarters, Quezon’s Game strains to consistently hold your attention. With the exception of some inspired shots, the abundance of tight shots makes the film smaller than it actually is. It’s nice to see Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar being utilized again for another historical film but the overall vibe of the place actually goes for a Spanish colonial era look. There are minor anachronistic details too like sinks, mirrors and doors that don’t belong in the 1930’s – these are dismissible nitpicks of course.

American diplomat and Philippine commissioner Paul V. McNutt (James Paoleli) in ‘Quezon’s Game.’

The desaturated cinematography is fine but when heavily infused with white costume designs, the film starts to yearn for more vibrant hues. On the other hand, the musical scoring could have been more emotionally stirring. I know that we’re going very technical here but direction and production values are very crucial elements in any film, especially for a period piece. With a limited budget, the film could only do so much. Director Matthew Rosen nevertheless understands well the plight of the Jews that he’s able to bring a palpable sense of fear and despair to Malacañang, even if the mass killings are happening from the other side of the world.

MLQ and Aurora (Rachel Alejandro) watch the atrocities of the Nazi regime via a newsreel.

It is easy to bypass at these flaws because the greatness of this film actually lies in its honorable intention which is to celebrate an outstanding tale of humanity that should never be forgotten nor downplayed in history. It’s not the most efficient political thriller but it’s contemplative and eye-opening enough to be recommend for everyone. Quezon’s Game inspires and moves a generation to action. I will never look at the 20 peso bill ever the same way again.

3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Matthew E. Rosen, written by Janice Y. Perez and Dean Rosen, ‘Quezon’s Game’ stars Raymond Bagatsing, Rachel Alejandro, Kate Alejandrino, Billy Ray Gallion, David Bianco, James Paoleli, Kevin Kraemer, Jennifer Blair-Bianco, Audie Gemora, Tony Ahn and Miguel Faustman. 125 minutes. PG-13.

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