Award-winning director, writer, editor, and musical composer Jerrold Tarog directs “Heneral Luna”. It is a biopic film about Dr. Antonio Luna – a rather underrated national hero in Philippine history who deserves a higher pedestal in our pantheon of celebrated Filipino heroes. Luna, best described as an ill-tempered general in many textbooks, is an Atenista-Tomasino who also finished his doctorate in Universidad Central de Madrid (He has higher educational attainment than Rizal!). He is a scholar, a chemist, a pharmacist, a poet, a propagandist and military scientist whose role was pivotal in the Philippine-American War and whose moustache is an allegory to his courage and strength. Considered as the Andres Bonifacio of the American era, his death seemed to be linked to Aguinaldo and to his solons as well. As a scientist, his studies showed among others the medicinal benefits of the waters in Sibul Springs in Bulacan and the Pasig water as unfit for drinking even during his time. Moreover, his military studies were not merely acquired through experience. He was under the tutelage of Belgian military general Gerard Leman – an important figure in the World War I.
All right. Before we get to a far-fetched topic, here are the reasons why we should watch Heneral Luna. Spoilers ahead.
1. HEROES ARE HUMANS, TOO
We know they’re humans and we all release fecal matter when nature calls. But, since the Filipinos are a culture of fanatics, we have treated our heroes as gods. Now, the movie lowers down the characters into human beings that the Filipinos can find better affinity with. They speak archaic Filipino but their tones and delivery make it easier for us to relate and their characters show both
good and bad sides that we ourselves can be given certain situations. You might think that the Americans are the antagonist or Aguinaldo or his cabinet – but the first two mentioned were those who have given him the most praises. The cabinet, on a different hand, portrays the Filipino people who bother themselves with protecting interests concerning daily economic activities, sense of job security, and family.
The character Pedro Janolino (whose hands blew the first gulok attack on the death sequence) could be symbolic of Filipinos who have been inspired to take revenge on people who have humiliated them – thanks to our telenovela addictions. A scene where Apolinario Mabini reminds two characters to bring their glasses along with them and a scene where he looks at the bloodied gulok of a soldier during the burial of Antonio Luna show consistency in his character as a sage who is still incapable of digging into the truest truth.
It is also worth considering that the bigotilyo Luna and the pokerface Aguinaldo characters seem to be mama’s boys – just like our dear Pepe Rizal. Whether it is part of the creative license or not, it is very effective in capturing the audience.
2. GABRIELA PARTY-LIST WILL LIKE THE WOMEN CHARACTERS.
All right. Not just Gabriela. But, all other feminist activist groups worldwide. The movie is 80% testosterone.
(Well, what do we expect from a war biopic centered on a hero famous for his temper and mustache?) Although, the 20% of the movie showed how female characters played big roles in the Luna’s life – scenes showing Isabel (Mylene DIzon) and Doña Laureana (Bing Pimentel) show how Filipinos, although considered patriarchal, give so much value to the concept of femininity, motherhood, and the concept of the “woman behind”. The movie also showed how the early Philippine Army was gender-blind. Those scenes were short and sweet but they were enough to assert the role of the Filipina in nation-building.
3. CINEMATOGRAPHY, EDITING, SPECIAL EFFECTS ARE AT PAR WITH HOLLYWOOD
Imee Marcos’ name was shown in the acknowledgments so it was supposed that scenes were shot in Ilocos Norte. Why not? It’s a favorite location for shooting. The fields, the mountains, the forests. It’s not necessarily new but there is one part of the movie where Luna is shown at a cliff overseeing the natural beauty of Philippine landscape.
The aerial shot fits the natural scene perfectly. The scene where Luna raced towards the American troops is majestic. Also, one sequence of the movie shows a dialogue between Luna and Mascardo. It exhibits effective use of editing as a narrative technique – emphasizing great divide between their factions within the Aguinaldo government. And you would want to take note of that long one take showing Luna’s childhood as well.
However, the real part to watch out for is the protagonist’s death. No other Filipino biopic has gone this far as to make it so gruesome you will cringe while watching. And it wasn’t out of whim – that whole sequence was actually based on written history.
If I have to compare Tarog’s Heneral Luna to Marilou Diaz – Abaya’s Jose Rizal and Mark Meily’s El Presidente, I’ll describe Jose Rizal as classy, grandiose, and intelligent; El Presidente as a manifestation of Filipino film production prowess; and Heneral Luna as an enlightening film whose perfection lies in its well-executed roughness.
4. JUAN LUNA IS PART OF THE PRODUCTION DESIGN. INDIRECTLY.
You’ll find out how Juan Luna was involved in its production design in the earlier part of the film. Nevertheless, a period movie is always interesting for aside from giving colors to sepia pages of our history, it shows us the trends of the time.
In this movie, the Filipino movie production standard has once again set its standards up the bar. This movie is a manifestation of the Filipino’s ability to create globally competitive films. Heneral Luna joins the roster of contemporary world-class Filipino-produced costume movies/drama such as Marilou Diaz Abaya’s Jose Rizal, Mark Meily’s Baler and El Presidente and Mac Alejandre’s Amaya. This movie is phenomenal and a heavy factor to consider in its success is the consistency in detail and theme.
5. BITS OF SLAPSTICK AND DARK COMEDY ARE STRONG BUT NOT HARD SELL
Unlike Jose Rizal, El Presidente, Bonifacio, and Lapu-Lapu, the movie Heneral Luna has semantics that is more relatable. Poetic, dramatic, intense – but very relatable and not even a mile near hard sell. Amusingly, you will feel affinity while still hearing archaic Tagalog nouns and sentence forms. Perhaps, due to movie’s show of humor presented in dark tones in every sequence of the film – just like how normal Filipinos see dark comedy in a daily basis. A certain scene where Luna shots a chicken is a hint of dark comedy and symbolism. The comic relief is necessary as this war drama is very intense and fast-paced and it is a good thing that it is very organic and befitting for the theme, and not as whimsical as a Wenn Deramas blockbuster. Many scenes have made the audience laugh effortlessly. The dark comedy comes out because the screenplay is masterfully written by seasoned writer E.A. Rocha and the director himself, Jerrold Tarog.
The Filipinos laugh in the face of death – why should this movie be 100% war drama?
6. ‘EDUCATIONAL’ BUT NOT ACADEMIC
In a country where ignorance is something to be celebrated, it is not surprising Philippine History is a subject only beginning to find its way in the trend of mass consciousness. It seems ironic for the first Asian democracy – but, it’s empirically true. We see History as part of a school curriculum – not necessarily boring, but, nevertheless, a mere academic subject. Amusingly, although the movie has not pressed too much on the exact details of historical events, it perfected the details of human emotions and the essence of each historic event that has unfurled through the life of the bida. More than a history film, it is a drama reflective of the genuine Filipino values – evident in each of the characters. It educates the audience through emotions and not on trivia. One example is when Nonie Buencamino’s Felipe Buencamino (sic) cites Juan Luna (Antonio’s kuya), as a crazy lunatic who killed his own wife. When the line was delivered, it was befitting the state of emotions because Antonio Luna first hit on Buencamino’s son as a coward.
On side note: the very act of using heavy historical themes in movies and television productions seems to have been more prevalent today as it was during the last sixty decades of mainstream Philippine entertainment. In 2011 to 2015, we have had the following film and TV productions with heavy historical themes: Supremo, El Presidente, Gabriela, Ilustrado, Katipunan, Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo, Heneral Luna, and the upcoming Joel Lamangan-directed ‘Felix Manalo’.
7. ACTORS NOT FROM MUKHANG-MAY-SCRIPT SCHOOL OF ACTING
John Arcilla, although a veteran character actor, is not your usual matinee idol nor an actor who enjoys household name status like Eddie Garcia, Christopher de Leon, or Cesar Montano. But, this break is sure to make a mark in Philippine showbiz, much like how ER Ejercito enjoys ‘El Presidente’ fame. (Not many people know that John Arcilla is also a singer. He played Lakshmana in the 1999 musical stage production of ‘Rama at Sita’ at the Cultural Center of the Philippines – precursor of the production which starred Christian Bautista and Karylle in late 2012. Watch here.)
The indie powerhouse casting made the movie look and sound unscripted. Mylene Dizon’s short but sweet role was teeming with graceful execution of a strong educated woman’s character. Mon Confiado looks very regal in his role as Emilio Aguinaldo – a far cry from his villainous rapist roles. Epy Quizon’s voice will now be Apolinario Mabini’s voice in my head. Nonie Buencamino’s love-to-hate villain style is still present but with a tone different from his tv roles. Leo Martinez shows versatility, as always, but, this time combining the evil and the comic. Archie Alemania is effective for comic relief sans goofiness that he is mostly associated with. Lorenz Martinez’ role as Gen. Mascardo, (although seemingly fitting for any of Tirso Cruz’ sons) is a big jump from his Hari ng Tondo stint. Nevertheless, Martinez is stellar. Also, had the young Manuel Quezon role been given to somebody more mestizo than Benjamin Alves (likes of Enrique Gil or Martin del Rosario), the casting would be perfect – but it doesn’t really have much gravity because he appeared for just a few seconds. Also, I think it’s worth noting that the character played by Aaron Villaflor seems to be pegged after Felix Manalo in search of truth.
8. THE NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE AND HUGOT LINES ARE PASOK-SA-BANGA
Aside from the moon (luna) as a good object, there are so many other literary devices present in the movie – framing, irony, foreshadow, and imagery – the chicken which was gunned at the plaza; the train as a sign of progress; the flag being hanged normally while the country is in state of war; the mustache; the uniforms; the wide shots and the close ups; the dominant colors in the scenes; and the dialogue – perfectly captured without making the movie too intelligent for the audience who also enjoys the wit of JoWaPao in Kalyeserye. For example, before Luna was brutally killed, he was scolding a soldier.
“Bakit napakarumi ng uniporme mo?” he scolded the soldiers who tremble non-theatrically. Their facial expressions are more than enough to show their cowardice. It was a very nice foreshadowing to his very gruesome death where he shouts his last words of evident abhorrence and regret. Watch out for that chilling Spoliarium.
With regard to the hugot lines, the script and the delivery of seasoned thespians give life to these words like nobody can do it better (listed according to my favoritism [the latter the better]):
“Ang kalaban ng kalaban ay kaibigan.”
“Ganito ba talaga ang tadhana natin? Kalaban ng kalaban. Kalaban ng kakampi. Nakakapagod.”
“Ang taong may damdamin ay hindi alipin.”
“Ano bang akala niya, ibang bansa na ang Kabite?”
“Nasa ibang ulo ang utak ng inyong kapitan. Hindi naman gaanong kalaki ang ulo niya.”
“Paano ako lalaban? Kakagatin ko sila?”
“Nasubukan mo na bang hulihin ang hangin?”
“Kung gusto mo ako ipakulong, magdala ka nang kabaong.”
“Giyera ang asawa mo. Ako ang kabit.”
“Para kayong mga birhen na naniniwala sa pag-ibig ng isang puta.”
“Ingles-inglesin mo ko sa bayan ko?! Punyeta.”
9. MESSAGE IS CLEAR – TUMATAGOS!
The movie has showed that inasmuch as we value our families, it is also the cause of our downfall. The regional mentality of the Filipinos which is branching from our kin values makes it hard for the country to unite and be willing to sacrifice for the nation as a whole. We didn’t have to worry about the Americans or any other invaders for that matter because our own regional mentality will destroy us. Truly, just like what Luna emphasizes in the film, the Filipinos’ greatest foe is ourselves.
Look at the sad references – from Humabon siding with Magellan to fight Lapu-Lapu to Ninoy Aquino dying in the hands of his own kind. Luna, Bonifacio, and Aquino were all killed by an unidentified mastermind. And still, Filipinos are divided in their answer with this foregoing rhetorical question: Would you rather have a Philippines run like hell by Filipinos or a Philippines run like heaven by foreigners?
The message is not just about showing the life of Antonio Luna and how everybody in the movie has protected their interests. If you’ll notice, there is no main kontrabida in the movie. The antagonist comes out when the audience starts to reflect on his own values of patriotism. What is nationalism for the Filipino individual? Is it fighting tooth and nail against invaders? Is it protecting your family against hunger and danger at all costs possible? Is it just staying resilient – swaying like a bamboo in times of turmoil? Is it sticking with principles even if death is the price? What really is nationalism for a Filipino – because, at least, for Antonio Luna, it is about freedom from foreign oppression and internal discipline – at all cost. At some point, it shows that the antagonist in the movie is Luna himself. His strict measures of discipline have caused him his life.
This question of nationalism has long been searching for clear and absolute answer from a nation – and it is sad to think that, intrinsically, the Philippines might not even be ready to refer to itself as one – even after all those years and all our heroes’ deaths.
10. 50% DISCOUNTED FOR STUDENTS IN THE PHILIPPINES
Just show them your ID. For others who are not enrolled in schools anymore, argue that you are a student of life.