'Heneral Luna': Film Review

Heneral Luna - H 2015
Courtesy of Artikulo Uno Productions
A raging 19th century-set epic that aims pot-shots at 21st century ills.

Jerrold Tarog’s historical drama about a military commander's struggle for independence is the Philippines' submission for the best foreign language film Oscar next year.

Paying tribute to a heroic military commander spearheading the Philippine struggle for nationhood at the end of the 19th century, Heneral Luna is a sturdy, stirring if perhaps sometimes simplistic historical epic about bravery and treachery in a country at war. Based on the final years of Antonio Luna, a European-educated scientist-turned-soldier who was murdered by his rivals when he was just 32, Jerrold Tarog’s big-budget blockbuster has generated immense buzz in the Philippines. Local audiences have warmed to John Arcilla’s high-octane turn as Luna and also how his story mirrors the chaos of contemporary Philippine politics.

A hearts-and-minds piece serving a primer in the Southeast Asian nation’s history and two hours of relentless swashbuckling drama, Heneral Luna has now been selected as the country’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar next year. While the film does thrive on some universal truths about the futility of ideals in politics, its appeal beyond the Philippines and its global diaspora might be limited. Meanwhile, its mainstream production values — an achievement in itself at home, given its standing as a production independent from the local major studios — might hinder its fortune on a festival circuit seeking either genre-benders like that of Erik Matti’s, or grittier fare from critical darlings like Lav Diaz, Adolfo Alix Jr. or Jun Robles Lana.

Tarog’s mission in reconstructing his country’s national narrative is pretty obvious, given the way he begins the film with an on-screen text stating how "bigger truths about the Filipino nation" could only be broached by mixing reality and fiction. His pedagogical objectives are manifested in the film’s framing device of Joven (Arron Villaflor), a fictional character whose name is Spanish — the lingua franca in colonial Philippines in the 19th century — for "young man." Heneral Luna is meant to be this generic bespectacled journalist’s observations of the life and death of a national hero. He begins the film listening to Luna recalling his rise to power — the recollections visualized as a long flashback — while he then gets to witness the general in action, during his final battles against foreign forces and then adversaries within his own ranks.

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Shunning the inconvenient truths of Luna’s early-life brushes with politics — he started out advocating political reforms rather than outright revolution — the film begins in 1898, when he has already delved headlong into the armed struggle and is the commander of the Philippine Republican Army. By then, the U.S. military have already defeated Spanish colonialists and readying themselves to annex the Asian archipelago, and Luna is busy steering the independence movement towards a direct confrontation with a superpower aiming to gain a toehold in Asia.

His boldness contrasts sharply with the meek, reconciliatory voices which dominate the movement. While Luna is constantly at loggerheads with the former colonial-era apparatchiks who have reinvented themselves as pro-independence leaders, his biggest adversary here is actually the movement’s leader Emilio Aguinaldo (Mon Confiado). While Luna is shown living and working alongside his soldiers and talks his talk of the need to put country before family and everything else, Aguinaldo operates behind a neat desk — an indecisive man under the sway of his backers, his cronies and even his mother.

This is a man who has previous experience killing off his dissenting comrades, as in the case of the execution of rebelling commander Andres Bonifacio, a brutal murder glimpsed in a brief flashback, and serving as the harbinger of things to come. With Luna’s demise very much predestined, Tarog’s film plays out a whirlwind j’accuse in which a warrior defies his double-dealing detractors, rages against the dying light and lurches towards a grisly end.

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And the film hardly strays off message: Luna’s lover, Isabel (a fictional amalgamation of the general’s many partners, and played here by Mylene Dizon), turns out to be as audacious and patriotic. After Luna’s laments in bed about war being "a cross I have to bear," Isabel — who also happens to be a leader of the local Red Cross chapter — ends their relationship, proclaiming their respective public duties as more important than their clandestine affair.

Heneral Luna does have its lighter moments, such as the general’s near-slapstick attempt to commandeer a train for his soldiers or his gallows humor while trapped in the trenches. But comic relief is rare in this bulldozing epic about a selfless patriot in a dangerous age, and the film is filled with scenes and dialogue highlighting Luna’s vision of his country being free from external domination (namely the US, seen here butchering and bayoneting locals with impunity) and internal division (as Luna enforces standard-issue uniforms to rein in clan-building commanders).

While the odd historical anachronism does mar the film — such as Woodrow Wilson’s “manifest destiny” speech from 1920 being used to augment the argument of U.S. expansion in the 1890s — the message here is certainly loud and clear. Charging onwards unflinchingly, Heneral Luna trades in as little subtlety as its titular hero does.

Production companies: Artikulo Uno Productions

Cast: John Arcilla, Mon Confiado, Arron Villaflor, Mylene Dizon

Director: Jerrold Tarog

Screenwriter: Henry Hunt Francia, E.A. Rocha, Jerrold Tarog

Producers: E.A. Rocha

Executive producer: Fernando Ortigas, with Leo Martinez, Vicente Nebrida

Director of photography: Pong Ignacio

Production designer: Ben Padero

Costume designer: Carlo Tabije

Editor: Jerrold Tarog

Casting Director: Jaime Habac Jr.

Music: Jerrold Tarog

International Sales: Artikulo Uno Productions

In Tagalog and English

No rating, 118 minutes