• An expert prize-winning filmmaker’s assessment of ‘Heneral Luna’


    Last of three parts

    I, too, am a filmmaker. This provides the final rationale for this review. I cannot view “Heneral Luna” without weighing it along the scale of film aesthetics. I surmise that it is in this area where the film draws much charm.

    To begin with, I’d rate its production design as brilliant, given standard local budget; reckoning within the media-hyped budget of P70 million, that rating would drop to above-average. But, whatever, even considering that most of the evocation of imagery of the Spanish colonial era is done in the interiors or, if it is necessary to show a scene in the exterior, backdropped by a Spanish-period structure – which in local filmmaking lingo is called “daya” – the film sufficiently succeeds in gripping the audience in a Spanish Philippines atmosphere. Execution of the battle scenes as well as the script saves the day for the film; they distract the audience from the austerity of the set and the arbitrariness of planted props.

    Like that scene where Luna comes to the rescue of a friend trapped behind a solitary upturned cart or table or some fixture that in any case appears to have no reason at all to be in the middle of a wide expanse of ricefield where the battle is taking place. That scene reminds me of a contemporary action movie where in order to have the effect of a motorcycle crashing through a glass, the director has a couple of men crossing the street carrying uprightly a big glass panel through which the vehicle crashes. Ingenious? I’d say absurd. But never mind, the audience applauds the stunt.

    Same thing with the “Heneral Luna” viewers. They react approvingly when driven suicidal by the absence of any shelter from the American attack, Luna mounts a horse and by his lonesome charges at the American position. This prompts his forces to charge after him, in turn prompting the American troops to withdraw.

    A plus for the screenplay of “Heneral Luna” is in form. It is crafted not in the mold of trite narrative as is the characteristic of most movies, local, Hollywood or otherwise. Rather it ventures into a domain of storytelling that is intrinsically filmic, that is, according to the principle of montage developed by Sergei Eisenstein when Lenin commissioned him to study the cinematic medium in order to use it for advancing the workers struggle in the Russian Revolution. Out of that study, Eisenstein formulated the montage theory which since then has become the guiding principle for making films.

    Though not quite getting out of the Hollywoodian genre of theatrics, “Heneral Luna” makes much use of montage to a degree that makes it stand out over the rest (there’s currently not much of this “rest” in any case). Storytelling is a maze of points of view– from a close associate of Luna, from his mother, from himself and from the filmmakers. It seems a miracle that the audience emerges out of the labyrinth feeling satisfied.

    Or is it because, back again to Stalin, you keep harping on the “goodness” of the film so that when somebody steps into the theater already having that mindset, he views the film as, indeed, good. And then again, the novelty immediately apparent in the way the scenes are made to unfold strikes the audience as something different, therefore, something nice. Additionally, the rich dash of human touches in the dialogues, which is consistent all throughout the screenplay, taken together with an unconventional, therefore new if not altogether original, directorial approach, continuously excites the audience, keeping their attention till the end.

    Witness this confrontation Luna has with an American official supervising railroad operation. Luna is having difficulty with his English and so he orders his men: “Nauubusan na ako ng English. Arestuhin n’yo na. Tangina naman, e.” Or in the goriness and savagery of the butchery of Luna, what should come up but this curt line by a woman who peeps out through the window of Aguinaldo’s headquarters: “Buhay pa ba?” Insult to injury, a most common human characteristic.

    Editing is the key to achieving all the foregoing. And scanning the credits, one gets to notice, if with some amazement, that the credit for editing, music and direction is given to one person: Jerrold Tarog. This should reinforce a contention by one of the latter-day film geniuses, the late Celso Ad Castillo, who proclaimed that films are a director’s medium. In my long association with The Kid I observed in him the workings of a director having full, complete control of the film creative process. If “Heneral Luna,” for all the diversity of points of view, varying narrative threads and intertwining themes inherent in the ambiguousness of its material, succeeds anyway in weaving a cohesive, unified, interesting story, it is the director’s craftsmanship at editing that does the wonder of it all.

    But that’s for, as cited afore, the form of the screenplay.

    As to content, it is a dismal failure. And this finds no more emphatic testimony than in a social media comment that went rather viral: “Bakit laging nakaupo si Mabini?” The commenter instantly became the object of ridicule. One meme on Facebook has him being walloped by Batman with a line inside the balloon: “Tangina ka! Hindi ka kasi nagbabasa ng kasaysayan.”

    Poor fellow, getting blasted for somebody else’s offense. It is not his fault that he does not know Mabini is paralyzed by polio and so must remain seated. The film says nothing about this.

    That comment actually dramatizes the fact that much of Philippine written history suffers from hiatuses which serious students must fill in with their own meticulous research. If it is an intellectual crime to stay content with what has already been scaled but found wanting, all the greater crime it should be to fail to clarify what already had been made historically evident. In this regard, “Heneral Luna” deserves a failing grade. It adds nothing new to what had already been wrongly written about.

    In an interview, Vice President Jojo Binay stated that in ordinary cases, he sleeps through a movie presentation but in “Heneral Luna” he stayed awake. That should be a feather in the cap of the filmmakers, hooking, too, His Future Excellency, the Next President of the Republic of the Philippines.

    There is just this one dull moment in the whole screenplay, the epilogue where Buencamino and Aguinaldo are given their due process, so to speak. In theater, this is called the denouement, the falling down of the action, and so the dullness of the final episode appears to be normal theatrics.

    But then, the denouement is meant to make one final evocation from the audience – a pure feeling of relief, a beautiful, pleasant cleansing of the spirit.

    To this reviewer’s dismay, he doesn’t get such feeling. At first, as the epilogue is getting rather too long for comfort, he starts getting bored, and he is about to rise and walk out but for the totally unexpected appearance of Lieutenant Manuel L. Quezon, who comes marching in to present his troops to Aguinaldo. At the presentation, Aguinaldo quips: “Pumili ka ng animnapu.” Whereupon the scene freezes and the end credits are scrolled.

    My boredom instantly turns to rage. History certainly records Manuel L. Quezon as a most ardent champion of annexation of the Philippines to the United States, enjoying complete American tutelage, first as head of the Philippine Assembly, then as President of the Philippine Commonwealth. This commonwealth status was the US concession to Filipinos as neutralizer to the increasing proletarian revolutionary struggle against US imperialism, this time led by Crisanto Evangelista and Isabelo de los Reyes. Never mind that Quezon was the guy who declared: “I would rather have a government run like hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by Americans.” Dismiss all that as polemics. Fact is when Japan attacked the Philippines in World War II and the country needed him most, what did Quezon do? He fled to the heaven that was America – and died there, too.

    Since Quezon’s rise to the pinnacle of Philippine politics, the proletarian struggle has been intensifying such that all sectors of Philippine society have been continuously subjected to having to make a choice between serving either the workers or the bourgeoisie – the arts sector included.

    With its finale – a prelude to glorifying Quezon – “Heneral Luna” perforce proclaims its avowal of service to the bourgeoisie.

    The author, Mauro Gia Samonte, is an accomplished movie journalist who for a time ran a column in the Lifestyle-Entertainment section of The Manila Times. A known filmmaker, he has more than 50 movie titles to his credit. He has won two best screenplay awards, one from the Metro Manila Film Festival and another from the Film Academy of the Philippines. He runs three blogsites, The TRAVELER at maoblooms.blogspot.com for his literary works, KAMAO at kamaopunch.blogspot.com for his political views, and BRASO at bigwasbalikwas.blogspot.com for his historical insights.


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    1. While there are conflicting views about the value of M.L. Quezon living the country during the war I think to some extent there is wisdom in it.

      Against the Author’s sole proposition that it is as if, M.L. Quezon ran to avoid war, staying presents problem as well. He could have stayed, fought which will lead to 2 possibilities die or get captured, if he died fighting, he may be an instant hero but which ultimately mean demoralization all over the country and means end of the struggle. It has been a long time experience that what trophy is greater by having killed the king of a country during a battle.

      His capture would mean same even he would not be executed, it will have a crippling effect.

      On the contrary, the President having left and beyond the reach of the enemies means he could direct the resistance from afar so that regardless of how many soldiers may have fallen, the supreme leader is still alive directing the course of action. This is true in many struggles, a few example would be Joma Sison of CPP/NPA, the Da Lai Lama of Tibet and many others.

      As to the question of the author to who Luna died, there is no doubt to “his ideals of creating a unified Philippines”. The author is right the concept of Filipino is not yet alive back then, but it can be inferred from Luna’s ideals that time to leave the idea that Caviteno’s are only fighting for Cavite etc. Luna has despised the regionalistic mentality and is looking for a centralized and Unified Philippines. Now to answer to did Luna die? was it for the rich or the poor? My answer backed by historical basis is for the Philippines which include both rich and poor.

    2. A self-proclaimed film expert, whose notable works during his creative period as a director are limited to the “Machete” films, criticising what is proving to be a rare beast – an independently-produced movie that is both critically-acclaimed and commercialy-successful, and most importantly, a cultural phenomenon – the author didn’t even get his facts right about the movie’s plot towards the end! Give me a break!

    3. I think the one you are referring to in the latter part of your article (the after credit scene) is not Manuel L. Quezon, it’s Gregorio del Pilar (Paulo Avelino). He was the one who said “Pumili ka ng siyamnapu” at the end. The scene is supposed to be a preview of the next movie (Heneral Luna is part of a trilogy). Manuel L. Quezon, although he appeared in the film, was not yet formally introduced. And the part where he appeared was before Heneral Luna was killed.

    4. the film although not perfect in executions, but somehow has awaken a little bit the essence of patriotism and nationalism in the minds of ours, which are the two most important ingredients in any revolution. sadly, most filipinos do not posses this kind of traits, that is why our revolutions until now is quite a failure.

    5. jacontreras is right.

      It may just have been an error on the part of mr. Mauro Samonte to have mistook Pres. Quezon for General Gregorio Del Pilar.

      It was Paulo Avelino who acted the part of Gen. Del Pilar. it just saddens me that such a movie critic would have made this kind of error. especially when his reaction/review for the movie was cut into three parts and published on different dates. A simple research after or while drafting your review would’ve enabled him to correct this huge mistake.

      I stated huge mistake for the premise of his last 4-5 paragraphs is his mistaken conclusion that it was Pres. Quezon and not Gen Del PIlar who was shown in the last clips of the movie. Truly, even how great a review is when this kind of mistake it discredits everything he has stated/opined for it casts the clouds of doubt on how meticulously he reviewed the movie.

    6. Regarding your friend the allegedly sophisticated R. Kintanar, do you recall how he turned Davao into a killing field when he was the NPA Kumander in that area in the 70s, including killing all those helpless policemen as they went about their everyday duties? What did that revolutionary act accomplish besides giving the Marcos government all the reasons to “violate human rights?” What is the difference between the violence employed by the enemy in the Philippine-American war and the violence of the NPAs, is there any really? In the 40 years that the NPAs have been waging war, how far have they advanced the cause of the people? If the NPA supremo is spending his senior years in the comfortable haven of the anti-communist country Netherlands it begs the question: who is his real enemy? Indeed. who is the real enemy of the NPAs? I wish somebody will make a movie with these questions as his basic theme.

    7. There is too much expltives using PI, knowing Luna as an Ilocano illustrado. I think the expletive more often used i dhould have been punyeta. Too much expletives destructs attention to the beauty of the historical facts that the film presents.

    8. whatever, to the average movie gower, it looks well made film. congrats to the director and producer of the film.

    9. Sir,

      Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe the film was referring to Gregorio del Pilar and not the young MLQ.

      However, your opinion on this film is superb.

      More power!

      • You’re correct. That scene about “pumili ka ng sisenta” shows
        Paulo Avelino who portrayed General Goyo.

        I did not find the hacking scene natural. Likewise, Gen. Luna’s going into the convent did not continue the premonitory scene of the carromata
        breaking down in the middle of the river on their way to the convent.