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Film Review: Heneral Luna

Let’s begin with some background: During the Philippine-American war, “Heneral Luna,” a military leader with a fiery temperament, contends with an enemy more treacherous than the “Amerikano”: his own duplicitous countrymen.

General Antonio Luna, superbly portrayed by John Arcilla, is in charge of the Philippine revolutionary army, and he is in über-fight mode. After more than 300 years of being under Spanish rule, the Philippines is now sold to the United States, under which rule the native country now becomes. “Heneral Luna” is insistent on fighting for freedom, but some of his cabinet colleagues around the planning table with President Emilio Aguinaldo (Mon Confiado) prefer to compromise with the enemy. Regionalism and insubordination mar the unity of the fighting forces. In the end, it is Luna’s well-known pride and temper that seal his fate as a group of soldiers assassinate him in Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija.


Does the film succeed literally?

Well, in terms of cinematography, writing, acting, and plot, “Heneral Luna” is quite ambitious in scope. I felt chills down my spine during the scene when the General was able to convince a large crowd of men and women to build the trenches that they need for their strategy. However, I did notice that their clothes were simply variations of blue and white, so I was asking myself if this was already CGI. Even so, it does not detract from the point of the scene: Heneral Luna can be charismatic enough to win over ordinary Filipinos. To some politicos at the time, this scenario could have been perceived as a threat. The writing, thank goodness, is not the stiff and wooden dialogue of historical films past, but refreshingly “real,” as real as the crispiest expletives that shock or the most earnest lines of poetry that stir nationalism in one’s heart (“In the end, we shall be like whirlwinds of dust” – or something to that effect). The acting is consistent and believable. In an attempt at subtle flirtation, Heneral Luna and Isabel brush their hands lightly against each other. I honestly found that cool: a scene modeling the modesty still so ingrained during that time. As to plot, here’s my take on that: Although sometimes I already know how a film will end (through foreshadowing, plant-and-payoff, etc.), I still like to be surprised while I’m watching something for the first time. It’s the feeling I get when I cannot wait to watch what happens next. For instance, even if I already know via historical “chismis” down the generations that Gen. Antonio Luna met with a violent death, the film made me care about the events that led up to that grim end – whether those events were factual or imaginary.


Does the film succeed metaphorically?

For a film to do this, it must speak to us in pictures and sounds, since film is both. What symbols could we find in “Heneral Luna?”

A fellow reviewer pointed out that the mangy dog and the cart breaking as Luna’s soldiers attempt to cross the river after him are both signs of bad luck. The flag of the Philippines is shown clean in the beginning, becoming soiled as it is brought to the battlefield, and finally burned. This could signify that the road to nationhood is stained with struggle and blood, but in the end we will just be whirlwinds of dust and ashes. Lastly, almost no one could miss the reference to Juan Luna’s prize-winning painting, “Spoliarium,” as the dead General and his right-hand man were being dragged across the dust-covered floor of the assassination site.

As to the real event – or wat it just an urban legend? – about the boyfriend asking his girlfriend why Apolinario Mabini never stood up even once during the entire length of the film: Come now, let us not be too condescending. Nobody can know everything there is to know about history unless that person is a genius at memorizing facts. So let’s cut the boyfriend some slack.

Some say that the side who wins the war gets to write their own version of history while the losers give up their voice as a people. History is always evolving as a fluid narrative. We have been silent long enough. Thanks to films like “Heneral Luna,” may we be inspired to at least ask ourselves: “Bayan o sarili?”


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