One of the most expensive and highest-grossing Filipino films of all time, “Heneral Luna” is a rousing, warts-and-all portrait of Gen. Antonio Luna, the brilliant and brusque strategist whose command of troops in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) was cut short by betrayal from within his own ranks. Anchored by a charismatic central performance by John Arcilla (“Metro Manila”) and peppered with exciting action sequences, the pic has the all-around energy to overcome the odd moment of bumpy storytelling and prosaic dialogue. A worthy official submission in the foreign-language Oscar race and an entertaining history lesson for audiences everywhere, “Luna” reps an impressive achievement in large-scale filmmaking by prolific scripter-helmer-editor-composer Jerrold Tarog (“If Only,” 2007). Launched locally on Sept. 9, the pic grossed a whopping $5.3 million and has notched an impressive $200,000 on limited U.S. screens since Oct. 30.
It’s worth noting the film’s remarkable turnaround at the domestic box office. Initially released in 100 cinemas, “Heneral Luna” performed only modestly in its first week and was quickly withdrawn from more than half its screens. Following a spontaneous fan-led social-media campaign, audiences started turning up in droves, and the film was subsequently reinstalled in many theaters and went on to enjoy a highly successful nine-week engagement. Such a lengthy run is regarded as a minor miracle for a Filipino production, and Tarog has since announced plans to make another two films set during the same eventful era as “Heneral Luna.”
Announcing itself as “a work of fiction based on facts,” the pic is framed around a series of interviews granted by Luna to Jove Hernando (Arron Villaflor), a fictional newspaper journalist. Threaded into the narrative at well-judged moments, these lively conversations provide viewers with valuable insights into the general’s personality and assist greatly in keeping track of the story’s bulging inventory of characters and events. Much of Luna’s dialogue in these sections is squarely aimed at encouraging local audiences to ask questions about the evolution and identity of their nation, and to draw parallels between contemporary political events and those in Luna’s time.
A clear picture is immediately established of the state of affairs in the Philippines in late 1898. After more than 300 years, colonial ruler Spain has relinquished control and sold the islands to the U.S. for $20 million. Exactly where that leaves the newly self-declared First Philippines Republic and how it should respond to the first landing of U.S. troops on Filipino soil is hotly debated inside the shaky government of President Emilio Aguinaldo (Mon Confiado) and wheelchair-bound Prime Minister Apolinario Mabini (Epy Quizon).
It’s clear from the outset that “Heneral Luna” is a very different proposition from the majority of Filipino historical epics, which paint fawning portraits of the nation’s founding fathers. The rasping dialogue by Tarog and co-scripters Henry Francia and E.A. Rocha presents a government wracked by chaos, disunity and the readiness of key players to place personal interest ahead of the national interest by accepting U.S. domination without a fight.
When all this squabbling and bickering comes to the boil, Luna (Arcilla) is potently launched into the fray as a straight-talking, fiercely patriotic commander who cuts through everyone’s rhetoric and insists on pre-emptive strikes in order to save the fledgling nation. As he puts it: “I detest war, but I detest compromise more.” In the process of winning the argument Luna clashes fatefully with pro-compromise power brokers Pedro Paterno (Leo Martinez) and Felipe Buencamino. In a remarkable and highly effective piece of casting Buencamino is played by his direct descendant Nonie Buencamino, a highly regarded legit actor.
With the volatile political landscape well mapped out, “Heneral Luna” thunders into action. Given command of a motley collection of troops that could barely be called an army, Luna whips them into shape with inspirational speeches about nationhood and brilliant tactics that bring about several stunning victories on the battlefield. While paying full due to Luna’s military genius, Tarog does not shy from showing his weaknesses. Most glaring are his fanatical insistence on absolute obedience and moments when he lacks understanding and sympathy for peasants and farmers on whose land the war is being fought.
While following the traditional trajectory of a war movie, “Heneral Luna” is more fundamentally concerned with examining how internal rivalries proved the undoing of Luna and destroyed any chance of the Philippines gaining genuine and lasting independence. Tarog achieves the primary objective with distinction, but isn’t as successful when U.S. forces are center-frame; the momentum drops noticeably, and the dialogue between American characters including Gen. Arthur MacArthur Jr. (Miguel Faustmann) and Gen. Elwell Otis (Rocha) is frequently clunky and unconvincing. But the name of the game here is Gen. Antonio Luna, and for the overwhelming duration of its running time the film delivers on its promises.
Arcilla’s zesty performance brings full-blooded life to Luna’s reputation for inspiring both undying loyalty and enduring enmity. Surrounding him on the loyalty side of the equation are well-written and performed portraits of supporters including Gen. Jose Alejandrino (Alvin Anson), Col. Francisco Roman (Joem Bascon) and Capt. Jose Bernal (Alex Medina). On the opposite side of things, Ketchup Eusebio nails his portrayal of Capt. Pedro Janolino, a smarmy young officer whose refusal to obey Luna plays a critical role in the fortunes of the general and the war itself. Though given relatively little screen time, Mylene Dizon (“Aparisyon”) hits a winning note as Red Cross worker Isabel, a fictional amalgam of several women Luna was known to have been involved with.
A massive undertaking with approximately 100 speaking roles and a crew of 600, “Heneral Luna” impresses on all levels. Production design by Benjamin Padero and Carlo Tabije, art direction by Katrina P. Napigkit and costume design by Padero vividly bring to life an era that few viewers outside the Philippines will have seen on big or small screens. Cinematographer Pong Ignacio confirms his rising-star status with gorgeous widescreen lensing of lush rural areas, artful compositions in sequences inside the corridors of power and fluid, exciting coverage of the many combat set-pieces. Tarog’s traditional orchestral score is big and brassy when the moment calls for it, and nicely restrained when quiet is required. A high standard of excellence is achieved in pyrotechnics, vfx work and all other technical areas.