"An eye-opening biopic of a less understood historical icon.”
Lunacy and treachery are the secret ingredients of Heneral Luna, a cinematic masterpiece from Filipino director Jerrold Tarog and the Philippines’ official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards. Set during the Philippine-American war (c. 1898), this biopic film has a two-pronged mission: to introduce the pathos and strifes of a lesser known yet equally significant historical figure, and to depict the pains and ill consequences of self-sabotaging deeply-rooted cultural and political idiosyncrasies.
General Antonion Luna (John Arcilla), the younger brother of famed artist Juan Luna, is a gifted military strategist during the Aguinaldo regime. When the Americans beckon to occupy the Philippines right after the Spaniards take leave, a heated debate breaks off among the cabinet members of President Emilio Aguinaldo (Mon Confiado). While Prime Minister Apolinario Mabini (Epy Quizon) and Gen. Luna seek independence for the country, Felipe Buencamino (Nonie Buencamino) and Pedro Paterno (Leo Martinez) takes the economist’s point of view and advocate compromise with the foreigners. Determined and hot-headed, Gen.Luna pushes his way for a pre-emptive strike but only ends up frustrated and betrayed by his own countrymen.
In mainstream media filled with romantic comedies and family dramas, Heneral Luna is a refreshing, exciting and industry-defining sight. It is a thing to behold because it is not every day (or every year) that the Philippines produce films with deep meaning and historical significance. The movie also strays away from conventional Filipino war hero films. Instead of purely romanticizing the protag, it unmasks his demons and humanize him, enabling audience to see the elements that pulls his personhood from all directions, making the idol more relatable and closer to reality. The present film is fearless in portraying Luna’s personality, including his flaws and uncontrollable temper. He is quick to respond, careless with his words and actions, and dauntless with materializing his plans and principles.
In some ways, Heneral Luna is reminiscent of Downfall, Germany’s 2004 entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars which made it to the final five. The German film depicts the final ten days of Adolf Hitler’s reign over Germany in 1945. Similarly, the lead figures verge on insanity as pressure of impending doom towers over them. For Luna, such madness displays in his suicide charge against an American troop, threatening disobedient soldiers and humiliating their captains, demanding thousands of farmers to help build trenches, sequestering a train, lashing at a vendor selling live chickens, and getting into an uncalled scuffle with a fellow general. They are all shocking revelations, but such passion steams from the hero’s unequalled patriotism and determination to free the country. His nationalism is clear and the film is quite redundant in portraying it. Yet, in little snippets distributed here and there, we also catch a glimpse of more positive aspects of the man – his being a brother, a son, a musician, a comedian, and a lover.
The movie is also bold in presenting some sad and ugly truths about the Filipino culture. For one, a general leaves his post to attend a feast. When Luna asks him to return, he bluntly declines and his refusal piques the commanding general, resulting to a pointless near-bloody confrontation. This mirrors how Filipinos mindlessly leave his seat to celebrate a festivity and assume high honor and respectability in the gala. Humor is prevalent in the feature, a trait that makes the nation smile through any tragedy. These comic interludes are welcome, preventing the film from being overserious and drab. Yet, jokes are sometimes untimed, awkward and corny, making the film less forceful and plausible in delivering its message. Other satirical representations of the Filipino culture are men pissing everywhere, soldiers riding a cart while crossing a shallow river, and the nastiest of all is robbing the dead or murdered in the public eye.
Furthermore, Luna’s death is quite overdone, coming across as overly-dramatized and sentimental. He was stabbed by his fellow revolutionaries, gunned, hacked and finally shot in the head, blowing his brains out, before he finally breathed his last. Not contented, some soldiers rush to his dead body and further beat it with their axes. It is vicious and totally perplexing. Where does such hatred and savagery come from? What motivated such treacherous and despicable act? If this is purely the writers’ interpretation (the film’s disclaimer states that the feature is a product of both fact and fiction), then there must have been some exaggeration in their imagination. But if this is reality, then it is a frightening buried piece of history. In a heart-breaking moment, captured like Juan Luna’s famous Spolarium, the bodies of the brave general and his trusted right-hand man are dragged along the bloody pavement. Ironically, the same people who killed him also took his body to its final resting place. His death was never given justice as the people behind his assassination came up with moving and partisan alibis.
Some parts of the narrative are quite clunky and farcical like the American troops halting their assault because it is dinner time and a group of women laughing at their men counterparts who run away from the battle. The movie starts with high energy and though it is fast-paced, the dynamics is erratic and dramatic tension is unsteady as almost every frame repeats Luna’s burning patriotism.
Three actors stand out the most in this heavily-casted film. Arcilla is outstanding and impressive playing the titular role. He does his assignment and his solid delivery shows his committed understanding of the character. Quizon registers strongly as Mabini and he exudes believable authority, wisdom and willpower. Buencamino is a formidable nemesis, playing a businessman whose practical approach to sovereignty is tinged with selfish desires. Aguinaldo is quite underwritten and pushed aside as mere observer than a country’s respected leader. Confiado also underplayed the character with his mostly silent and self-absorbing moods.
Heneral Luna is sad and tragic, a brutally honest portrayal of an iconic national hero. It flawlessly merges history and art, possibly inspiring young Filipino filmmakers to produce quality features with highly-relevant material and commercial value. Despite logical lapses in its narrative, it successfully delivers it message. It has lingering effects but more political and cultural than personal.
Production company: Artikulo Uno Productions
Cast: John Arcilla, Mon Confiado, Epy Quizon, Joem Bascon, Archie Alemania, Aaron Villaflor, Nonie Buencamino, Leo Martinez, Ronnie Lazaro, Ketchup Eusebio, Paolo Avelino, Mylene Dizon
Director: Jerrold Tarog
Screenwriters: E.A. Rocha, Henry Hunt Francia, Jerrold Tarog
Producers: Daphne Chiu, Ria Limjap, Ericson Navarro, Fernando Ortigas, E.A. Rocha
Director of photography: Pong Ignacio
Production designer: Banjamin Padero, Carlo Tabije
Editor: Jerrold Tarog
Music: Mikko Quizon
Visual effects: Jergens Correa, Jauhn Dablo, Rachelle Suficiencia