Isabel Sandoval has been booked and busy lately.
The Cebu-born filmmaker has been making waves in the filmmaking world since her third feature film “Lingua Franca” (which she also starred in) was picked up by Ava Duvernay’s distribution company Array and premiered on Netflix. She has since collaborated with Miu Miu for their Women’s Tales series, which “invites today’s most profound and original female directors to investigate vanity and femininity in the 21st century.” The film, entitled “Shangri-La,” brought Sandoval back to the Venice Film Festival in 2021.
Next, Sandoval directed the penultimate episode of the true crime limited series “Under Banner of Heaven” for Hulu, where she was able to work with Academy Award winner Dustin Lance Black (who created the series) and Academy Award nominee Andrew Garfield. Garfield had nothing but praise for their work together, saying in an interview “She was so precise, so sensitive, so professional, so talented, and astute, and I really, really enjoyed her as a director.” Her episode also earned the praise “10/10 beautiful trans girl multi hyphenate excellence” from a Letterboxd user, which the director tweeted next to Garfield’s quote.
Sandoval will be in production for her next feature film “Tropical Gothic,” which she will also be starring in. The film is set in the 16th century Philippines, where a native priestess convinces a Spaniard that she is possessed by his dead bride’s spirit. The film will also be produced by Big Beach, the company behind films such as “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Farewell,” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
CNN Philippines Life recently caught up with Sandoval to talk to her about all things queer cinema in the occasion of Pride Month. After the Q&A, Sandoval unveils her 10 favorite queer films.
For you, what makes a queer film authentic when it comes to the narrative or the performance?
To me, it’s more than the narrative or performance but the sensibility. The perspective that informs both the narrative and aesthetic of the project. And there has to be something genuinely subversive about it — a debunking or reimagining of convention. I came up with the main character in “Señorita” to rebel against the popular image of the transwoman in Philippine pop culture as boy-chasing and frivolous — an object of ridicule or derision really. In “Señorita,” she’s maternal, indignant, politicized and a daredevil in her own way. You have to upend the status quo somehow in how queer characters are portrayed in your work for it to be authentically queer. Otherwise what’s the point?
What was the first queer film that you watched? How aware were you that it was a queer film and what sort of impact did it have on you?
Growing up in the Philippines in the ‘80s & ‘90s, when you think queer character, you think of Roderick Paulate. If I have to nail down a specific movie, let’s say “Petrang Kabayo?” Beyond that they all kind of blur into each other for me, but the takeaway from those films was that queer means flamboyant which means hilarious. You’re laughing at whatever the queer character Roderick was playing, who was almost always defined by pining over some guy as if that gave him purpose. There was an ostentatious theatricality to all of it that I couldn’t relate to; I was introspective and reserved as a kid so the queer Philippine cinema I grew up with — most of which were studio comedies — left a bitter aftertaste. Which probably explains why my earliest work — when I was beginning to question my gender identity — is an attempt at repudiating all of that.
What's a non-queer film that to you is a very queer film?
“The Deep Blue Sea” by British auteur Terence Davies (who happens to be queer so I’d venture calling it queer-adjacent). I didn’t quite connect with the film when it first came out but revisiting it this past year it finally clicked. Suffused with ache and longing, a lush visual argument for the very particular catharsis of thwarted love. It’s like a more impressionistic Sirk. The capacity to feel something so acutely — especially heartbreak — paradoxically reminding us we’re alive. I was very close to curating this for a sensual cinema screening at the Brooklyn Museum for Pride month, but ultimately went with “Happy Together.”
What do you think still needs to be explored in queer cinema? Have you addressed that in your work somehow?
Subjectivity, both immersive and transportive. It didn’t occur to me until recently how the contemporary filmmakers I find the most interesting explore subjectivity in their work — Lynne Ramsay, Claire Denis, Darren Aronofsky. The imagery, the mood are designed to be experienced from the vantage point of the protagonist. That’s immersive subjectivity, which is what I explored in “Lingua Franca” most pointedly in the sensual scenes. Transportive subjectivity plunges us into the fantasy and imagination of the protagonist. The latter half of my short film “Shangri-La” is pretty much a visual rendition of her stream-of-consciousness. The most overlooked terra incognita of modern cinema is the subjectivity of women and queer people, and excavating it intrigues me as a filmmaker.
Here are Isabel Sandoval’s 10 favorite queer films.
1. “Funeral Parade of Roses” (Toshio Matsumoto, 1969)
My crown jewel of the Japanese New Wave in both its brazen formal inventiveness and radical subject matter (especially in 1960s Tokyo).
2. “Happy Together” (Wong Kar-wai, 1997)
Jazzy, in-your-face and heart-on-its-sleeve to “In The Mood For Love’s” relative obliqueness and reserve yet just as swooningly melancholic.
3. “Tropical Malady” (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
Quintessential Apichatpong, transporting you from the corporeal to the primordial and mythical.
4. “Bad Education” (Pedro Almodovar, 2004)
A fever dream (and nesting doll) of a queer noir. Almodovar does Hitchcock!
5. “Beach Rats” (Eliza Hittman, 2017)
Hélène Louvart’s camera glides over skin and body quivering with desire. Tactile and lush, crafted with utmost care by one of my favorite auteurs.
6. “The Handmaiden” (Park Chan-wook, 2016)
As sumptuous and dizzyingly twisty an airport paperback could ever dare to be. Park Chan-wook! Kim Min-hee!
7. “Days” (Tsai Ming-liang, 2020)
I was surprised by how openly tender and humanist this was, and has since become my new favorite of Tsai.
8. “Bound” (Wachowski Sisters, 1996)
Subverts noir in thrilling ways, and an early work from the Wachowski sisters.
9. “Far From Heaven” (Todd Haynes, 2002)
Who knew that Todd Haynes queering Sirk would not only transcend pastiche, but result in a devastating masterwork all his own?
10. “Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa” (Alvin Yapan, 2011)
Poetic, in form and substance.