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FILM REVIEW: A Look at ‘Heneral Luna’

31 March 2016

By William Elvin

Despite its bleak presentation and heavy subject matter, Jerrold Tarog’s ‘Heneral Luna’, has been a ray of hope for quality filmmaking in the Philippines. With the Filipino masses conditioned to flock to simplistic and mostly inane Pinoy blockbusters of recent years, ‘Heneral Luna’ was pulled out of most theaters after a week of screening in September of 2015, only to be revived following a loud social media clamor that resulted in packed cinemas.
The big online word-of-mouth campaign for the film had perhaps forced a number of Filipino moviegoers to take a cold, hard look in the mirror.
By viewing Tarog’s historical epic, important questions about the nation and our current state are raised. In fact, within the first few minutes, Gen. Antonio Luna (John Arcilla), being interviewed by fictional journalist Joven Hernando (Aaron Villaflor), is already spewing out one of the many powerful lines in the film:
“Malaking trabaho ang ipagkaisa ang bansang watak-watak"
Heneral Luna says this against a clean, bright, and proud Philippine flag at the back.
The film’s action takes off with a chaotic exchange among revolutionaries about Americans’ intentions to our motherland, with each voice having its own personal agenda.
Luna, with his militaristic viewpoint, believes it is necessary to build a strong army to defend against American forces. Politician Pedro Paterno (Leo Martinez) and his cohorts are willing to form an alliance with America, admitting that doing so will protect their businesses and feed their families. Caught in the middle of the argument is a seemingly indecisive President Emilio Aguinaldo (Mon Confiado), advised by Apolinario Mabini (Epi Quizon). The uncertainty of military support from the President prompts Luna to build his own force, making lots of enemies in the process.
Most of Luna’s adventures are recorded by the journalist Joven. When we go back to his interview with the General, we find the Philippine flag in the background stained and crumpled.
The episodes of bravery and nationalistic passion all lead to the historically honest depiction of Luna’s violent death at the hands of Capt. Pedro Janolino (Ketchup Eusebio) and some soldiers of the Kawit Battalion.
A conspiracy between President Aguinaldo and Luna’s political enemies Pedro Paterno, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Felipe Buencamino (Noni Buencamino), and General Tomas Mascardo (Lorenz Martinez) is implied to have triggered the assassination, but is vehemently denied by Buencamino and Aguinaldo towards the end of the film.
At this point in the movie, blood and dirt now stain the crumpled flag. It is now being used as the backdrop to American Generals Douglas McArthur (Miguel Faustmann) and Elwell Otis (Ed Rocha), as they sneer to the audience for “killing the only real General we ever had.” In its final moment, the Philippine flag is shown being consumed by fire.
Luna, much like the flag, serves as a symbol of national solidarity in this film. He criticizes the Filipinos for being territorial, and for putting their geographical and/or familial loyalty and allegiance ahead of seeing the bigger picture and thinking as one nation.
This tribalism- a misplaced sense of belonging - caused infighting among the very people who were supposed to be the vanguards of  the hard-fought independence from  Spanish rule.
In one scene, Luna says that this very trait is proof that Filipinos are still not ready to be rulers of their own nation. This political infighting, fueled by Aguinaldo's indecisiveness, lead to Luna’s downfall. The filmmakers call for solidarity and unity for Filipinos as a nation, lest we are all to blame for the death of Antonio Luna and the eventual consumption of our nation by fire.
The movie’s effectiveness relies heavily on John Arcilla’s consistently nuanced Antonio Luna. While many of his co-actors struggle to make the screenplay’s language work, Arcilla breezes through each line. Outside of Arcilla’s performance, the most noteworthy moment in the film is Nonie Buencamino’s chilling monologue after Luna’s assassination.
Though the episodic structure of the film has caused it to drag and slow down at times, Jerrold Tarog’s well-researched artistic and consistent tedecisions remained consistent from start to finish. The cinematography (Pong Ignacio) and production design (Benjamin Padero, Carlo Tabije)  is well-utilized in setting the tone and colors, culminating in a brilliant reference to Juan Luna’s ‘Spoliarium’ after Gen. Luna’s murder.
It is worth noting that Tarog also edited the film, and composed its music score as well.
The lines and dialogue may often sound contrived and unnatural, though it is not the script’s fault. Screenwriters Henry Francia, E.A. Rocha, and Tarog have tried their best to write an easily understandable script that sounded elegant and poetic, if only all of the actors were able to deliver it as well as Arcilla, Noni Buencamino, and Leo Martinez did.
The strongest point of this film is that its nationalistic message is never over-simplified. While it celebrates Luna as an icon, it also presents him as a flawed hero. He is often cruel and violent, pushed by his passion to have everyone agreeing to his militaristic viewpoint. There is no preaching in the film. It merely presents the story and the ideas these characters represent. It is - just like how good art should be - giving the viewers the responsibility to search for the truth, and the answer to the questions given.
“Mas madali pang pagkasunduin ang langit at lupa kaysa dalawang Pilipino sa kahit na anong bagay.”
The film makes us focus on our country's current social problems. To find the solutions, we must open not only our history books, but our eyes, ears, and hearts as well. More than its cinematic achievements, ‘Heneral Luna’ deserves to be praised for calling out these issues and making us face them.
The University of the Philippines Alumni Association  Hong Kong chapter organized a screening of ‘Heneral Luna’ at the Consulate on March 5 and 6.

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