'Quezon's Game': Film Review

Quezon's Game - Publicity still - H 2020
ABS-CBN Film Productions
A fascinating historical tale, less than compellingly dramatized.

Matthew Rosen's directorial debut relates the true-life tale of how Filipino President Manuel Quezon attempted to provide a safe haven to Jewish European refugees just before the outbreak of World War II.

Ambition trumps execution in Matthew Rosen's directorial debut dramatizing an admittedly fascinating and little-known historical episode concerning the Holocaust. Depicting the efforts of Filipino President Manuel L. Quezon to open his country to Jewish refugees fleeing Europe, Quezon's Game could have emerged as a compelling cinematic bookend to Schindler's List. Unfortunately, the poor production values, ham-fisted screenplay and uneven performances prevent it from achieving the desired dramatic impact. The results seem more suited for classroom screenings than theatrical exposure.

It's hard to avoid the comparison to Steven Spielberg's classic, not only for the similar themes but also because the screenplay co-written by Janice Y. Perez and Dean Rosen (the latter also providing the musical score) begins and ends with scenes in which Quezon (Raymond Bagatsing) turns to his wife Aurora (Rachel Alejandro) and forlornly asks, "Could I have done more?" The moment is so reminiscent of the climactic moments in which Liam Neeson's Schindler berates himself for not rescuing more Jews that it feels less like an homage than an appropriation.

That portentous scene takes place in 1944, shortly before Quezon's untimely death from tuberculosis, but the main action of the story takes place six years earlier. It's then that Quezon, whose country was at that time a commonwealth of the U.S., is implored by Jewish-American cigar company executive Alex Frieder (Billy Ray Gallion) to provide visas for European Jewish refugees. Despite extensive social and political complications, Quezon agrees to help, setting a goal of allowing 10,000 to enter the country.  

Helping him in his efforts are a sympathetic American diplomat (James Paoleli) and no less a personage than Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a military attaché to the Philippines. (The latter is well played by David Bianco, but the actor's effectiveness is constrained by the fact that, despite his bald pate, he looks at least two decades younger than Ike, who would have been nearly 50 at the time.)

What ensues is a numbingly tedious series of exposition-heavy scenes in which the characters deliver the sort of dialogue that would have seemed hoary in an episode of the vintage TV series You Are There (you keep waiting for Walter Cronkite to make an appearance). At one point, Aurora tells her husband, "You're the president of the Filipino people, my love. Don't just make them proud of you — make them proud of themselves." Inexplicably, the Filipino characters switch willy-nilly from speaking English to Tagalog, sometimes from sentence to sentence, as if they were attempting to master a language course. Quezon's Game also attempts to add some domestic drama into the mix via such plot elements as the titular character's flirtation with a sultry cabaret singer that leads to a testy confrontation with his wife, but it plays like tired soap opera. And the characters constantly smoke so many cigars that it begins to feel like stogies were the biggest drain on the film's budget.

The story's inherent fascination becomes undercut by the flat, TV movie-style lensing, complete with the obligatory desaturated color palette signifying that the events took place decades ago (apparently, vibrant colors didn't exist until just recently). The characterizations are mostly paper-thin, such as the moustache-twirling Nazi character who acts as if he learned how to behave by repeated viewings of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. The supporting performances are uneven, to put it kindly, although the charismatic Bagatsing delivers a nuanced, compelling turn in the title role.

There's no denying the laudable intentions of the filmmakers. Ultimately, Quezon succeeded in admitting some 1,200 refugees into the Philippines, but his efforts were ended by the Japanese invasion of the islands in 1941-42. The end credits feature moving testimony from a handful of those still living. It's all the more a shame, then, that Quezon's Game falls short in so many crucial areas.

Production company: ABS-CBN Film Productions
Distributor: Star Cinema
Cast: Raymond Bagatsing, Rachel Alejandro, Kate Alejandrino, Billy Ray Gallion, David Bianco, Jennifer Blair-Bianco, Tony Ahn, James Paoleli
Director-director of photography-production designer-costume designer: Mathew Rosen
Screenwriters: Janice Y. Perez, Dean Rosen
Producer: Marizel S. Martinez
Executive producers: Carlo L. Katigbak, Olivia M. Lamasan, Linggit Tan-Marasigan, Lorena H. Rosen

Editor: Reuben Joseph Aquino
Composer: Dean Rosen  

Rated PG-13, 127 minutes