Review: 'The Kingmaker'

New documentary pulls back the curtain on Imelda Marcos' restorative injustice
OMG, SHOES: Shia LaBeouf plays a character based on his controlling father in 'Honey Boy.'

With The Kingmaker, documentarian Lauren Greenfield upends the ever-growing field of journalistic plutography—that is, reverential "reporting" on the filthiest of the filthy rich. Greenfield's 2012 Queen of Versailles tried to explain how an 85,000-square-foot, $65 million house could end up with dog turds on the floor.

Greenfield's The Kingmaker finds her with remarkable access to a 90-year-old Imelda Marcos. Hearing the name of the uncrowned queen of the Philippines, one recalls the word "shoes." In February 1986, when mobs broke into the palace of Imelda and her brutal dictator husband Ferdinand, they found 3,000 pairs of her shoes. At a rally for her successful senatorial campaign, the grandmother is served cupcakes decorated with doll-size shoes made of frosting.

Greenfield observes, without comment, Imelda's terrific sense of resentment and self pity. The gentle, fair-minded viewer will worry that the film is making fun of a gaga old lady. Far from it. Underestimating Imelda is foolish; for all her white gloved charm, she's busy helping her son Ferdinand Jr.—known as "Bongbong"—as he runs for high office in an effort to rehabilitate the family's name and reclaim its power.

The secret to Imelda Marcos is selective vision and an iron-clad compartmentalization, in which effect never quite follows cause. She believes in her own will power: "I gave birth to what I dreamed, and I always got my way." Sometimes the dreams were folly, as when she cleared an island called Calauit of 254 families to make a private zoo, stocked with critters shipped in from Kenya.

With mixed success, she's held on to the billions she and her husband stole from the Philippines. While the Marcoses stonewall, cracks emerge: Imelda's social secretary recently auctioned off a $32 million Monet in NYC. For the camera, Imelda displays her collection of framed photos—meetings with world leaders of yesterday. Ferdinand knew better than to leave the Philippines, since he was allergic to coups. So Imelda went forth for the gripping and grinning with everyone from Henry Kissinger to Muammar Gaddafi.

Despite the uprising that chased these grifters to Hawaii, it's been a tough fight for opponents of the Marcoses. The country's current president, Rodrigo Duterte, has publicly joked about the Marcos money that helped finance his rise. It's a trick of politics in the Philippines that the vice president is elected separately, ensuring a divided executive branch. Bongbong lost the last VP election to Leni Robredo, but he's challenging the election in a court stacked by Marcos sympathizers. Just as they do in America, pessimists insist that the game is over already.

The memory of eight years of martial law in the Philippines is being left to die, and the 3,200 murdered by the regime are being forgotten. May Rodriguez, an activist who was violated by the secret police, comments, "I don't have an answer for why they even allow Imelda to ever open her mouth."

Greenfield interviews a teacher tortured by a militia that included her pupils—after the Marcos era ended, they came back to finish their degrees, and she taught them anyway. Another source is Corazon Aquino, once president of the Philippines, whose husband Ninoy was assassinated after seven years in Marcos' custody. It's still officially an unsolved case, but Imelda says her hands are clean: "I had nothing against him except he talked too much, maybe."

Flaunting her family's greatness, Imelda sells the era of martial law as a time of Pinoy pride. In a classroom interview, we hear from plenty of students who believe that's true. With more menace than smugness, Imelda comments, "Perception is real, but the truth is not." Maybe Greenfield's best idea is to contrast the Marcos dynasty with footage of the now-inbred jungle animals on the island of Calauit. It's a visual argument against dynasties: today's blueblood is tomorrow's hemophiliac.

The lessons Americans can derive from this brilliant and frightening documentary are too obvious to name. One learns a lot about Imelda, but one also learns a little about Melania. It is to Greenfield's credit that she caught the mask of glamour slipping for a second, revealing the hideousness of tyranny underneath it.

The Kingmaker
R; 101 Mins.
3Below Theaters & Lounge, San Jose

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