For a month, the link languished in my mailbox — I put off playing Quezon’s Game until the latest possible moment. Frankly, the thought of a Filipino Schindler’s List held about as much interest as watching Pinoy TV with Hebrew subtitles. But rejoice! It may not always qualify as great cinema, but when it comes to presenting a fascinating, emotionally rewarding history lesson, you’ll be hanging on every scene. Plus, there’s just enough Tagalog spoken to satisfy the natives in the crowd, but not so many subtitles that it will tax the average American moviegoer.
A post-logos disclaimer warns that while much of what will follow is based on truth, the filmmakers are not above borrowing a cup of poetic license to sweeten their tale. We open in 1944, with his excellency Manuel L. Quezon (Raymond Bagatsing), second President of the Philippines, and his wife Aurora (Rachel Alejandro) watching what is presumably the first newsreel footage of Hitler’s death camps put on public view. Heightened for dramatic purposes, Quezon’s question, which bookends the film, is a familiar one: “Could I have done more?” How much of what follows is true and how much is manufactured hokum along the lines of Oskar Schindler asking how many more lives he could have saved had he sold one of his cars? I could have done more to provide an answer, had I only watched the film in a more timely fashion.
Flashback to 1938. With the war ramping up, a telegram arrives from Jewish cigar tycoon Alex Frieder (Billy Ray Gallion), bearing news of Germany’s plan for a final solution. On paper, the alternative sounded like a no-brainer: the Nazis had Jews they wanted to dispose of, and the Filipinos were willing to take them in. Under the guise of boosting the economy, Quezon posted classified ads offering Jews professional jobs in the Philippines. Reasoning that paper is cheaper than Zyklon B, they’d be doing Hitler a favor, taking Jews off his hands for nothing more than the cost of an exit visa. For a brief period, it worked. The Japanese invasion of the Philippines in 1942 put an end to Quezon’s game, but not before over 1200 migrants were saved from certain extinction.
Quezon was more concerned with saving lives than swaying voters. In order to do so, he needed to first convince Washington to open up immigration restrictions. This was a time when our nation’s capital was teeming with antisemites, none moreso than fictional composite Jonathan Cartwright (Paul Holme) an American liason who hated Nazis, but not as much as he hated Jews, who he classified as “worse than n-----s.” Quezon was determined to help the Jews, with or without the support of the United States government. There is but one gestapo in the picture, the toothsome, face-invading Lt. Ebner (Kevin Kraemer), who arrives in Manila clad in full Nazi regalia. Unlike Schindler’s List, the goal here is not to recount Nazi atrocities so much as it is to amplify the amount of compassion that went into Quezon’s deisions.
I was unable to track down the film’s budget, but I’m guessing this was not a case of first-timer Matthew Rosen having Hollywood millions to burn. In addition to directing, Rosen is credited with writing the story, plus managing cinematography and editing. The film no doubt looks a lot more expensive than it was, leaving one to bemoan some of the smaller, more easily preventable mistakes pertaining to period accoutrement. The whiskey that’s decanted throughout the picture bears more than a passing resemblance to watered down Snapple. The orchestra that plays the presidential gala appears to have been patterned after a ‘90’s wedding band, right down to the locks of the lead singer, whom we’re led to believe is Quezon’s mistress. In fact, one of the only hairstyles they got right was General Eisenhower’s (David Bianco). But at least the side-by-side comparison photos of actors and subjects that close the picture reveal a meticulous eye for casting. A followup visit to YouTube unearthed newsreel footage of Quezon. It’s more than just an imitation: Bagatsing’s nuanced performance taps into Quezon’s every move, sound, and thought.
There is a great film waiting to be made about President Franklin Roosevelt and the U.S. government closing American borders in the spring of 1942 to boatloads of Jewish refugees seeking asylum. News of Hitler’s death camps reached American shores later that year. Why did it take FDR so long to help rescue European Jews? Quezon’s Game brings these issues fully into light, drawing parallels to contemporary world unrest, while remaining careful to avoid being coy or overtly obvious. Nor was Quezon’s game to shy away from singling out a culture of bigotry as one of the major culprits behind America’s indolence. After all, in his eyes, the “Colored Only” signs that for years dirtied the American landscape stood for all people of color. What’s one more Filipino, or Jew for that matter?
It’s another case of my asking that you work for your art. As of this writing, the film is scheduled to play one week at two theatres: the AMC Mission Valley and the AMC Plaza Bonita. If 1917 put you in the mood for another, far-superior war film, then the one-take gimmickry was worth it.