Isabel Sandoval, “Queen of Sensual Cinema,” Embraces Ambivalence

Welcome to Freeze Frame, a new column in which Hollywood’s established and emerging filmmakers discuss a shot or scene from a movie that has stuck with them throughout their lives, and impacted the way they view cinema.

Eamon Farren and Isabel Sandoval in Lingua Franca.
Image courtesy of ARRAY.

In the decade since her first film was released, Isabel Sandoval has established herself as an indie auteur and critical darling. Her third film Lingua Franca, in which her character Olivia—an undocumented Filipina transgender woman who works as a live-in caregiver for an elderly Russian woman in Brooklyn while seeking U.S. citizenship via marriage—has raised her profile even higher. “Cinema has always had this romantic appeal to me about fantasy and traveling to a different place and being someone completely different,” Sandoval said one afternoon via Zoom, calling from a writer’s retreat in upstate New York. “But it took me a long time to convince myself that filmmaking can be a grownup or professional career that people can make a living out of in the long term.”

Born and raised in Cebu, the second-largest city in the Philippines, Sandoval studied psychology in college and has received no formal training in cinema. Instead, she looked to the complete works of Ingmar Bergman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wong Kar-wai, and Christian Petzold to learn how to make movies using cinema as a vehicle through which she could subtly work out very private thoughts and emotions.

The 2019 Venice Film Festival premiere of Lingua Franca marked the first time a transgender woman of color both directed and starred in a film screening at the competition. In the film, the elderly woman’s grandson, Alex (Eamon Farren), sparks a relationship with Olivia, and while she shares details about her journey toward documentation, he remains unaware of her transgender identity. It is not the first time Sandoval has acted in one of her own films, and its sociopolitical themes—as well as its romantic ones—continue to be relevant to the filmmaker. She also recently released a short film called Shangri-La as part of Miu Miu’s “Women’s Tales” series, in which she plays a Filipina farmhand who emigrates to California during the Great Depression, a time when interracial romances were illegal, and reveals her most private sexual thoughts in a church confessional to the white man—her lover—on the other side of the wall. Watching these films, it’s clear why Sandoval has been called the “queen of sensual cinema.”

Her next film Tropical Gothic will take place in 16th-century Philippines and draws from films such as Vertigo and The Piano. Before production begins, though, Sandoval opened up about her cinematic inspirations, specifically the impact a scene from Christian Petzold’s 2014 film Phoenix has had on her life and work. Here, the director talks about relishing the romantic fabric of cinema, defying the Hollywood ideal of a clear-cut ending, and having her work recognized by the Criterion Collection.

Isabel Sandoval on set directing Lingua Franca.

Courtesy of Isabel Sandoval.

You didn’t go to film school; what inspired you to make your first film, Señorita?

I wanted to go to grad school [for a master’s in business] in New York so that I could see as many arthouse films as I wanted to—and at NYU, you’re surrounded by IFC, Film Forum, Angelika. So I took the plunge and made my first short. It was more of a proof of concept because I had a feature in mind, and it’s set in the Philippines, but we decided to shoot in Flushing and make it look like a neighborhood in Manila. [Laughs.] I played a Filipina trans woman who is a sex worker and also looking after a friend’s child who doesn’t know that she does sex work. That was interesting because I wasn’t trans at that time, but I was already asking myself those questions about my gender identity. Filmmaking and playing these fictional characters on screen was a way for me to suss out those very personal questions that I had. After making that short in less than a year, I shot the feature Señorita and for that one I flew back to my hometown to shoot it for 15 days. Even my mom visited the set, but what’s hilarious is that she did not recognize me because I was in makeup as my character. It premiered at a major festival in New York, and there was interest in my work as a filmmaker in the Philippines.

Did making that first film open a lot of doors for you to eventually make something like Lingua Franca? What inspired you to tell the story of an undocumented Filipina woman living in New York, while still addressing some of those same themes of gender identity and romance?

After shooting Señorita, I decided I was trans, but I waited until after Apparation, my second feature about cloistered Catholic nuns in the Philippines during the Marcos dictatorship, came out before very privately deciding to start hormone therapy. I felt that I had more of a reputation then as an emerging auteur that I could move forward with my transition. I left social media for two years to focus on my transition, which was certainly a very interesting time for me, personally. I am an introvert and an only child so I learned to be very independent, and I was observing the changes I was undergoing physically, and emotionally and psychologically, on hormones, and how the way other people saw me and interacted with me changed, and how gendered those interactions can be, especially with cisgender men. That’s when I started writing the script for Lingua Franca. It was more of a straightforward romantic drama at that time, about a Filipina trans woman in New York who becomes romantically involved with a cisgender man who is not aware that she’s trans. But then the Trump election happened and for the first six months I felt like I was going through the stages of grief, starting with denial. I was feeling a lot of uncertainty and paranoia about what was going to happen. That was when the final premise of Lingua Franca came together, and it became a story about my character, Olivia, being undocumented. It was a way for me to channel and distill my own emotional state during the first year of his administration. That tension and vulnerability and unease are a prevailing mood and tone of Lingua Franca.

Many artists use cinema to work through private thoughts and emotions about “real life” while employing a sonic, visual, and textural language to express those inner feelings. Does your psychology degree help you with that when you’re making a film?

Yeah. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because Criterion Channel is doing a retrospective of my early work starting in April. In my first feature, I hadn’t transitioned but I played a trans woman, and my voice is really low because it was before I had taken any hormones. I was like, how do I feel about that part of my life, pre-transition? Because it’s not just my art. It’s, in a way, my own personal and psychological life being put out there because of how personal those films are. They’re not autobiographical, but I was working through my own personal issues. They felt cathartic and therapeutic. I’ve always felt that art, when it comes from a place that is authentic, more than being—especially in the context of being in an industry—an example of true representation, it’s like a Rorschach test. You’re projecting a lot of unresolved issues, conflicts, and dramas on this visual and narrative canvas.

You’ve expressed that learning from the work of other filmmakers has been very important to you. What is it about looking at a director’s entire body of work that you find most compelling?

One of the most important things that taught me about filmmaking is studying retrospectives of auteurs and how their own filmmaking has evolved over the course of their career. For example, Lee Chang-dong, whose latest films include Burning and Poetry—you can see these directors work on and play with similar and recurring themes throughout their careers, but the style and the care and the expertise just evolves and increases over time. The French filmmaker Jean Cocteau said that a director is essentially making the same film over and over, and I can say that applies with me. I have stopped fighting that, I just want to be able to tell the story that I gravitate to at any point in time and give it justice.

You tweeted recently that people have drawn comparisons between your work and the work of Wong Kar-wai, especially with your latest short film for Miu Miu called Shangri-La. The reason for this, you said, is that, “As I’ve evolved as a filmmaker in my own artistic journey, Wong and I have somehow arrived at the same conclusion about what cinema is: a rapturous, sensuous emotional experience.” Do you think that filmmakers subconsciously absorb and reproduce the work of other filmmakers often?

My own artistic journey has a lot to do with my increasing comfort and openness with who I am. And it's not something that I talk about a lot, but I feel in my first two features, there is such an intense need to be taken seriously as a filmmaker and as an artist. I've tended to gravitate toward ostensibly and outwardly “important” films. Señorita is set during a local election and its core theme is the political disillusionment of someone who comes from a very idealistic perspective and who becomes embroiled in a political system that increasingly makes that person corrupt. In Apparition, which is a period drama set against the backdrop of the declaration of martial law in the Philippines in early ‘70s, I would consider it my “Bergman film” because he was very much an influence. I feel like Bergman is a name you namedrop when you’re like, “I’m a serious cinephile!” [Laughs.]

How does Lingua Franca subvert the typical ideas of what a social drama film can be?

I think what changed in me after transitioning and making Lingua Franca is that I feel like I’m organically becoming more drawn to the innate romance and sensuousness of images, and cinema is essentially a visual medium. I’m finding the grace and the romance in situations and in characters. With Lingua Franca, for instance, when you read the premise it sounds more like a gritty, social realist film. There’s the threat of violence, and we’re accustomed to tropes of scenes featuring violence against trans women. When I was making the film and writing it, that was not the direction I felt compelled to go; I was really energized and passionate about the sensual scenes and the opportunity to explore and depict Olivia’s sensual life, her imaginative life on screen.

The film you recommended to me is Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, which follows a Jewish woman named Nelly who survives the concentration camps in Auschwitz. When she finds her husband Johnny in Berlin, she discovers he was the one who betrayed her to the Nazis, but he does not recognize her because her face has been disfigured and reconstructed by a doctor. Nelly keeps her identity a secret—I’m still not quite sure if it was a revenge tale or a romance, especially after watching the final scene. Which is it?

This was low-key an inspiration for me as I was editing Lingua Franca, in how adeptly and adroitly it handles both political context and a very personal story. First, it’s a riff on Vertigo. Then, there’s the political complexity, being set just in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the turbulent emotions involved in whether Nelly wants to reunite with Johnny, who is supposed to have betrayed her. These tensions simmer throughout the narrative so much that we’re expecting for that conflict to really explode in a dramatic climax. Petzold—and this is really a boss move—resolves it in one very deceptively innocent scene that he has also built up expertly in the beginning of the movie. On the surface, it’s so quiet and straightforward. There’s so much going on underneath Nelly singing “Speak Low” and Johnny playing piano while listening to her voice and seeing the tattoo of her concentration camp numbers, and how it comes together for him. What I was also trying to channel in the slow dancing scene in Lingua Franca is that you can communicate so much not just about the personal drama of the main character but how it affects the whole theme in the narrative of the movie itself.

In the final scene of Phoenix, Nelly wears a red dress, and I noticed in Lingua Franca, there are moments where Olivia wears a red dress too. Was that a direct reference to Phoenix?

Red is the color of passion. The importance of that in the scene doesn’t necessarily conclude that she’s still in love with him, and love can be vexing and ambivalent because if she still is in love with him then she is in love with someone who ultimately betrayed her trust and exploited her deepest fears and vulnerabilities, which includes being turned over to the Nazis by someone you’re supposed to love and is your husband. It’s kind of the same dynamic between Olivia and Alex in Lingua Franca, after Alex gaslights her. In both films, we see the women walk away. The red could be an expression of love, but I like the ambiguity. It’s asking whether she’s still in love with him, is he still in love with her?

I love the inconclusiveness of it, and how we are left to wonder what’s going on in the minds of these characters. That’s the truth of human nature and of life in general. Sometimes we arrive at pivotal moments in our lives and we’re not exactly sure how we really felt and why we did certain things. Some of our actions are motivated by completely subconscious or unconscious desires. The most important thing I learned from having a degree in psychology is that most of the time, human beings are inscrutable. Even though outwardly we might profess one thing, on a more subterranean, private level, we might be motivated by something completely different that we might not have the courage or the illumination to confront ourselves.

Neither Phoenix nor Lingua Franca give a clear-cut, conclusive ending to the main character’s story. Why did you decide to let Olivia have an ambiguous ending?

In my own experiences as a film lover, the movies that affect and move the most are those that do not spoon feed us or overdetermine everything so that we only have one direct and straightforward experience or interpretation of the film. That’s why Lingua Franca is narratively sparse in some sense. I’m not going to lay out all the details—each of us as a viewer is able to bring in our own experiences, thoughts, and memories, and fill the story so that we feel emotionally invested in it. I realize it’s a daring and bold move to not make a “transgender for dummies” kind of film, but I think that’s the reason why the people who connected with Lingua Franca were able to do so on such a profound level.

Your first three films were subtle and subversive—can we expect that in your next feature, Tropical Gothic?

I was also inspired by Petzold in his follow-up to Phoenix, which is called Transit—it’s an adaptation of a Holocaust novel that he set in present-day France. Tropical Gothic is set in 16th century in the Philippines very early on during the Spanish colonial regime. I’m going to be casting actors of Spanish or Latin American heritage, but the dialog is not in Spanish and the native Filipino dialect. It’s in English, and that’s because it's fundamentally an allegory about colonialism, and I don’t want imperialism to seem like an antiquated or abstract idea. It continues to be perpetuated to this day, but in our modern world and modern age, it’s America that is perpetuating this, and overdeveloping countries in the “third world.” I want that dissonance of English being spoken, I want these themes to continue to echo and resonate to contemporary audiences.