‘Quezon’s Game’ is a fitting movie to be released in this day and age of questionable leadership, rampant bigotry and discrimination, and an illness of forgetting our rich history and what it means to be a Filipino. Based on true events (but with a disclaimer that certain events and characters have been changed for dramatic purposes), ‘Quezon’s Game’ is about President Manuel Quezon’s bid to save over 10,000 Jews from the Nazi regime despite heavy opposition from the United States, who controlled us as part of their commonwealth at the rise of World War II.
A lot of the film directed by Matthew Rosen has shades of Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List.’ Funnily enough, walking out of the theater, a mother and daughter were just ahead of me and the teenage daughter was making the same comparison. But while Spielberg’s World War II epic is focused on a German who turns his back on the Nazi regime and saves Jews, ‘Quezon’s Game’ takes the perspective of a leader who makes the necessary pivot to save the lives of people who are not from his country, while his own country is fighting for their own independence from a foreign colonizer.
It’s that key element that makes ‘Quezon’s Game’ a powerful message for today. Aside from its theme of fighting any sense of bigotry (which corresponds to contemporary issues that are present in almost every country), its strong message of our responsibility as human beings towards refugees of any conflict anywhere in the world, and how this intersects with a country’s own fight for independence is filled with an infectious idealism that is sorely lacking in this day and age.
While the message rings true, there are issues in the crafting of the film that hinders it from becoming a truly epic and magnificent film. The script of Janice Y. Perez and Dean Rosen manages to properly plot the dramatic beats at every turn, but there is a sense of theatricality to it as each scene feels like a scene rather than an ever-flowing movement of events. This may have a lot to do with Matthew Rosen’s directorial style that feels more akin to television than it does to cinema.
Rosen’s shots come in very, very close -- sometimes even cutting out the headroom for his cast -- and doesn’t give these characters a sense of place in this world. Every shot feels tight that we can’t feel the breadth of space. There’s a wonderful use of desaturation that the film is almost devoid of color, leaning in towards black and white. It gives the film a feel of something that’s almost not real, which heightens the dialogue and the theatricality of the movie to a strong effect but the tightness of the shots makes ‘Quezon’s Game’ feel small when it’s not.
And the editing brings too much attention to itself. It’s constantly shifting angles and breaking the dramatic momentum of the actors. ‘Quezon’s Game’ has some of the Philippines’ esteemed theater actors, from Audie Gemora playing then Vice-President Sergio Osmena to David Bianco as Dwight Eisenhower. The busy-ness of the editing doesn’t allow the drama to settle nor build.
Raymond Bagatsing is mesmerizing as Manuel Quezon. He is presented as a charming, somewhat egotistical man, who is implied with maneuvering the naming of the new capital from Balintawak to Quezon City. But there is an evident change in his goals when he meets a Jewish man he has given refuge to from China that reminds him of the growing Nazi regime in Europe and all the Jews that are being sent to death camps. That switch is evident and even at the cost of his own health, Manuel Quezon strategizes to break free from the American hold over his country to save as many Jews as he can because no one else in the world would.
Providing an excellent foil for Quezon’s headlong thrust into this direct opposition to the forces in control is Rachel Alejandro and Kate Alejandrino, who play Aurora and Baby, Quezon’s wife and daughter, respectively. There’s a lot of very fine acting in ‘Quezon’s Game.’
The film would be so powerful on the small screen -- I noticed that it is an iWant original movie -- and maybe it was meant for streaming services, and it will work so well in that medium. The tightness of its shots and intimacy that it gives would really translate well in that platform. On the large screen of the cinema, the film feels constrained and small. And it’s not small. Its idealism and belief in the Filipino is a timely and relevant message that needs to be heard today.