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.