Isabel Sandoval on Dark Histories, Cinema, and Her Whirlwind Year

Actress and filmmaker Isabel Sandoval is in the spotlight.

The last time Isabel Sandoval was at QCinema in 2019, her third feature Lingua Franca had just premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. But in the last four years, she has established herself as not only a filmmaker but also as a champion of cinema. From writing briefly about Lino Brocka’s Insiang for the Criterion Collection to introducing Mike de Leon’s In the Blink of an Eye for his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Sandoval’s passion for cinema is at the center of what makes her special.

Now, she returns to QCinema for the inaugural edition of the QCinema Project Market as a different woman than when she last arrived, with a project that seems emblematic of all the transformations that have happened between these two visits: Underworld. Though she thinks that they’re going to officially switch the title to Moonglow. “It really captures more of the tone that I’m trying to go with [for] the film,” she says excitedly.

She brings us into the story immediately: Moonglow follows a jaded female police detective at the heart of 1970s Manila whose life grows complicated when she is tasked to solve a crime that, unbeknown to the rest of the police force, she orchestrated. Described by Sandoval as “a detective thriller and crime noir by the way of In the Mood For Love,” Moonglow feels like an evolution in ambition and magnitude. “My emergent sensibility is the marriage of themes with political underpinnings with a style that is lyrical, poetic, visually lush, and sensuous,” says Sandoval. “I wanna take that style to a grander narrative, in a more ambitious production in terms of its scale.”

Archival ALAÏA dress. Photographed by Kim Cam Jones for the June 2024 Issue of Vogue Philippines.

Moonglow could have easily been set in New York. Beyond the logistical, artistic, and financial ease, the city has been the home of many iconic American noirs such as Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) and Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1958). But the decision to return to the Philippines has always been the plan. “This is where I feel the most creatively free and autonomous to explore and experiment with film as a medium,” says Sandoval. Even her upcoming fourth feature Tropical Gothic, produced by Big Beach of Little Miss Sunshine fame, is set in 16th century Philippines and is partly inspired by the sensibility of National Artist Nick Joaquin, specifically his short story collection The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic.

Despite building a life in the US, Sandoval still writes characters that are deeply Filipino, and the return to the Philippines, particularly its periods of colonial subjugation and political strife, was partly fueled by her proclivities for characters whose histories haunt them. “I think the political and cultural context and specificities that you find in the Philippines are more rich and fascinating,” says Sandoval. “I wanted to set it in the ’60s and ’70s first as an allusion to certain regimes and certain eras in Philippine politics.”

It’s hardly a surprise that Sandoval’s films are powerful in their politics. Much of her oeuvre is defined by an invisible political hand twisting the arm of her protagonists: In her debut Señorita, it was a mayoral campaign corrupting the locality while in Aparisyon, it was the martial law era that seeps through the confines of the nunnery. Though her latter pictures Lingua Franca and the Miu-Miu-comissioned Shangri-La were not set in the Philippines, the threat of deportation in Trump-era America and lonely death during The Great Depression remain ever-present in the respective films.

Photographed by Kim Cam Jones for the June 2024 Issue of Vogue Philippines.
RICK OWENS top and skirt. Photographed by Kim Cam Jones for the June 2024 Issue of Vogue Philippines.

For Sandoval, the self is a product of the social, cultural, and political forces that limit what choices are even available. “My films are all explorations of power—how it’s lost, how it’s relinquished, how one claims it back,” says Sandoval. “I’m drawn to women protagonists that are disempowered in some way […] who in the bigger picture, might seem powerless but in their realm, the domestic realm, with their relationships, they try to assert themselves somehow as a way to hold on to their dignity.”

The pandemic and the racially motivated hate crimes have defined the last few years of America and have been sublimated into many of the films. But the iron hand in Hollywood has never been more present than last year with the writers’ and actors’ strikes, forcing Sandoval and many of her peers to put projects on hold for the collective good. “I yearn so much to be back on a film set actually. The last thing that I worked on was The Summer I Turned Pretty, a TV show. I haven’t been back on a film set in over a year,” says Sandoval, who is most alive during this step of the creative process. “You’re the very first one to wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and the last one to go to bed. But it’s the one thing that really excites me the most and makes me feel the most like myself.”

So when she was presented the opportunity to become a jury member for the Queer Palm at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, Sandoval took it. “We were all just blown away by the new Hirokazu Kore-eda film Monster,” she says. Soon, more of these opportunities began pouring in. In late October, she visited Mumbai for the  JioMAMI Mumbai Film Festival, where she sat on the panel with legendary Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair.

“My films are all explorations of power: how it’s lost, how it’s relinquished, how one claims it back”

But it came full circle when Sandoval was invited to be part of the jury for the First Feature competition at the Locarno Film Festival in August. Though Señorita competed for the Golden Leopard in 2011 and Tropical Gothic was selected for the Locarno Open Doors Hub in 2020, prior schedule conflicts and a global pandemic prevented her from visiting the resort city. Twelve years after the festival kickstarted her career, she is finally able to bask in its sun and meet its people. “It was nice to finally go to Locarno where it all started for me as a filmmaker and to actually watch the kind of films that I would go to a festival for: formally daring and inventive works that challenge, question, and expand the possibilities of the medium,” says Sandoval.

In a way, Sandoval’s life as a filmmaker has always been enriched by such spaces, with her cinephilia functioning as her passport. It wasn’t always a possibility. “After I transitioned, I was really terrified of traveling abroad because coming back to the US [with] Trump [as] the president, I was anxious [that] I was going to be questioned or singled out going through passport control,” says Sandoval. “But these last few months, I got to see more places and more countries than I would have dreamed of doing.”

Exposure to the breadth and depth of world cinema has only sharpened Sandoval’s sensibilities and ignited her ambitions. In her early years as a filmmaker, the need to pay homage to the masters that shaped her notions of cinema was strong. “I remember telling Teresa Barrozo, who scored Señorita: ‘I want the score to sound like In the Mood For Love,” she says, laughing in hindsight. But nowadays, this need to be referential has been replaced by a confidence in her intuition and an awareness that her sensibility is an amalgamation of all she’s seen and experienced.

White vintage trench coat. Photographed by Kim Cam Jones for the June 2024 Issue of Vogue Philippines.
Photographed by Kim Cam Jones for the June 2024 Issue of Vogue Philippines.

Her assured visions of Moonglow and Tropical Gothic are signs that she’s shed her emerging status and found her voice of a filmmaker. Other people seem to have taken notice. “From a practical standpoint, one challenge that I feel relieved has been lifted off my shoulders is getting the films financed,” says Sandoval. Now, it’s about finding new challenges. “I feel like I work best and I’m at my most creative and inventive when I’m working with limitations, whether in budget or time or something else. It makes me step up as a creative.”

In many ways, Sandoval has found the film she will be making and remaking all her life: films centered with women traversing two different and contrasting worlds, whose dichotomy of the self becomes reconciled through small yet crucial liberations. Though outwardly Sandoval’s films tackle sociopolitical realities and are informed by genres, she resists easy categorizations and wants to veer away from the consuming cynicism and determinism that Filipino noir is known for. “I want to […] go past that darkness and have it be about their yearnings, their desires, and maybe their regrets,” she says. “Moonglow, in a nutshell, is about two people who are hanging onto their dreams and their integrity in a society that is making it difficult for them to do so.”

ANA LA O’ dress. Photographed by Kim Cam Jones for the June 2024 Issue of Vogue Philippines.

While her films aren’t autobiographical, her work contains many of her own psychological truths. Growing up in Cebu, Sandoval’s catholic upbringing shrouded much of her life with shame and guilt, partly explaining why the subjects of desire and oppression are central to her work. “But now having transitioned as well, becoming more comfortable in my own skin and also with sexual desire, […] I take pride in this ability to desire something, to yearn for something, as the purest expression and assertion of selfhood and agency,” the University of San Carlos summa cum laude graduate says. “I think organically, that sociorealist lens is now blended with this lyricism and poetry and this romanticist worldview. We’re not simply defined as victims. Our suffering and trauma do not encapsulate us. We are liberated and emancipated by our ability to want something and desire something because that’s something that can never be conquered by external forces or people.”

Days after speaking with Vogue Philippines, Sandoval posts a story on Instagram. It’s a quick video of the jumbotrons in Times Square. Near midnight, they light up and display her face on multiple panels, playing a special edit of Andrew Ondrejcak’s 2021 short The Actress titled Screen Test: Isabel. As the image of actress and filmmaker dressed as Barbarella, Marlena Dietrich’s 1930 film Morocco and other icons of Hollywood cycle through the screens, a single thought pushes through the awe: Isabel Sandoval has made it. 

Vogue Philippines: June 2024 Issue

By JASON TAN LIWAG Photographs by KIM CAM JONES Fashion Director: PAM QUIÑONES. Styling by NEIL DE GUZMAN. Stylist’s assistant: Jilliane Santos. Makeup: Gery Penaso. Hair: Dale Mallari. Talent: Isabel Sandoval. Producer: Anz Hizon. Nails: Extraordinail. Production Assistant: Bianca Zaragoza. Photographer’s Assistants: Anthony Ozarraga, Anton Mangone, Kitkat Pajaro, Lancer Salva, Rico Bonghanoy.
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