Alternative Skins and Parallel Lives in the Films of Isabel Sandoval
“I’m drawn to women with secrets,” states Isabel Sandoval in her recent Criterion Channel interview, singling out a defining trait that connects the women within the auteur’s films together: the secrecy required of them, the necessity of concealment and suppression to continue living under a deeply politicized gaze. In the world of Sandoval’s films, it is impossible to be a woman, especially a trans woman, without harboring secrets.
Driven by swooning imagery, lush sound design, and tactile sensuality, Sandoval’s latest short film, Shangri-La, accomplishes within ten minutes what many filmmakers fail to reach within multiple hours. Sandoval’s short film, produced for Italian fashion house Miu Miu as part of their Women’s Tales series, is a perfect encapsulation of Sandoval’s career to this point, offering a tantalising glimpse at just how far she can push her distinctive cinematic style.
Narrating Shangri-La, Sandoval places herself front-and-center in the film, as she does in last year’s Lingua Franca and her first feature, Senorita. Sandoval’s hushed monologue provides a poetic backdrop for the film’s Great Depression-set taboo interracial romance, carrying the intimacy of a confessional. “Somehow I drifted off,” she narrates, “dreaming dreams of alternate skins and parallel lives.” It is this pursuit for a different life, this exploration of identity and desire, that defines the women in Sandoval’s films. Herself a trans woman of color, Sandoval knows what it is like to dream of a different life, a life where individual identity and desire isn’t tied to larger society. Focusing on women inhibiting complex and contradictory interior lives, Sandoval places her characters at odds with the worlds around them. Depicting the intertwining of these womens’ interior and exterior worlds, Sandoval crafts unique portraits of trans women and women of color dealing with specific hardships that come with their own experiences of womanhood.
Sandoval’s debut feature, Senorita, exudes queer DIY spirit, exhibited in its unvarnished digital cinematography and Sandoval’s casting of herself as the film’s enigmatic protagonist. A stunning reinvention of the neo-noir, the film places a trans sex worker at the center of a twist-laden political thriller plot. Sandoval portrays Donna, a Manila-based trans sex worker seeking a way out of her profession and a path towards reinvention. Her life opens up when an old friend asks her to care for their young son, relocating Donna to a small town. Entangled in a complex and corrupt mayoral election, Donna leads a convoluted double life. More complex than most cinematic depictions of trans sex workers, the film doesn’t bank on the novelty of representation. Instead, building through careful plotting, Sandoval weaves a web of corruption and political machinations, driven by a memorable femme fatale. The most striking element of the film is in its portrayal of the political ramifications the characters carry, a burden carried by their own bodies. In the world of Senorita, individuals transform and metamorphosize, a requirement to subvert the gaze trans bodies are subject to. The world of Sandoval’s cinema is tumultuous, driven by the intrinsic politicization of trans experiences, desire, and sex. Sandoval’s protagonists queer themselves unendingly, shifting identities to live under cis society’s gaze. Sandoval’s cinema is all about striking this balance between survival and desire, this conflict between the identity one needs and the identity one wants.
Apparition explores similar themes to Senorita, albeit in a much more harrowing manner. Sandoval’s sophomore feature is a grueling watch, drenched in a desaturated color and claustrophobic dread. Centering on a religious convent, the film is populated by nuns devoted to discipline and pious isolation. The rigid lifestyle of the nuns is shattered amid a declaration of martial law from Philippines' dictator Fernando Marcos. The nuns, including the film’s protagonist, Lourdes, are plunged into a destabilized political situation of civil unrest and chaotic protest, their fervently religious archipelago overrun by the outside world. Like Senorita, the film explores women seeking lives of purpose and meaning. Here that purpose is religious devotion, and, like in Sandoval’s first feature, this purpose is shattered by political intervention. Examining themes of guilt and conscience, faith and chaos, the film is an unforgiving portrait of identity and purpose derailed by an unforgiving society.
Sandoval returns as an actress in her third feature, last year’s breakthrough Lingua Franca. Her first film in English unfolds in Brooklyn, immersed in New York imagery and swooning romance. A sharp departure from the cruelty of Apparition, Lingua Franca is a love story, a romance built through intimate performances and passionate imagery. Sandoval stars as Olivia, a Filipina immigrant working as a caregiver to an elderly woman. When her green card status is thrown into jeopardy, she finds herself in an intense relationship with a slaughterhouse worker unaware of her trans identity. Soaked in sensuality and powerful romance, the film avoids cliches of social issue dramas, a romantic drama driven by issues of identity and immigration that never forgets to be genuinely romantic.
Isabel Sandoval’s films are a continuation of queer cinema history, a refashioning of queer auteurist filmmaking in the service of a new trans cinematic language. Stylistically in conversation with queer cinema history, Sandoval’s films boast a Rainer Werner Fassbinder-like embrace of melodrama, recall the evocative New York imagery of Chantal Akerman’s classic News From Home, and employ an impressionistic use of color recalling the color-saturated films of Pedro Almodóvar. Elements of queer cinema’s history are refashioned in Sandoval’s films in original and powerful ways, creating a cinematic language attuned to trans identity and experience.
To be a woman, especially a trans woman, is to be in a constant state of mediated disclosure, a protective shield in all interactions of selective information divulgence. Seen as dishonest, deceptive, and manipulative, trans women are deeply politicised in the world of Sandoval’s films, as they are in reality. Desire and individual identity, when externalised, is an invitation for harsh retaliation. Sandoval’s films feel like the result of a lifetime of reaching out for an identity capturing the exhaustion and frustration that comes with seceding personal control to the expectations of others. Sandoval perfectly captures the frustrating powerlessness of living as a trans woman in the world, the nerve-wracking and terrifying experience of making peace with ignorance and hostility. Piecing together exterior appearances, Sandoval’s protagonists blend into the world out of self-preservation, attempting to fit into the framework of a world that rejects them.
Catharsis, as rare as it is, comes with freedom in these films, with the personal embrace of desire and identity, the acceptance of what one wants, regardless of society and expectation. It drives the explosive finale of Senorita, seeing a trans sex worker, disempowered by the world at large, overthrow a corrupt mayor and change the course of an entire election. In Lingua Franca, it’s in the film’s showstopping sex scene, charting the complex map of Sandoval’s shifting face, fluctuating from fear and unease to pleasure and joy. Finally, it’s in Shangri-La, when Sandoval narrates, “I will love who I want to, and I'll be loved right back.” Her words, like her cinema, are an intimate and explosive declaration, a bold-faced reclamation of trans desire, a powerful rebuttal of the autonomy that both cinema and the world at large refuse to grant to trans women. A cinema centered around feeling and desire, Sandoval dares us to imagine a space for trans women to dream freely, in her words, “of alternate skins and parallel lives” in the unique rhythms and distinctive moods she conjures.