Overview: A short-tempered Filipino general tries to rally the Philippine Revolutionary Army to unite in facing the threat of the American army during the Philippine-American War. Quantum Films; 2015; Rated R; 118 mins
Imitation: I really want for there to be a Filipino film that I enjoy, but for some reason Filipino cinema hasn’t clicked for me in the same way it has for my friends or family. Most likely it’s because I feel that these films haven’t found a sense of identity, nor have they matched the depth reached by our Filipino literature. To say there is an issue with my country’s approach to films would be an understatement, but this film, Heneral Luna, actually managed to get some initial faith from me. Everything from the casting choices to the early critical reception foretold a good film, and it certainly had the means and source material to do so. Following the final months of the life of an easily-angered general who was killed by his own troops as he struggled to unite said troops against a foreign enemy sounds compelling, but the film never delves beneath the surface. It suffers the same flaws as The Imitation Game last year; it simply tells the history, or at least a dramatized version of the same. The film never convinced me once that this is a rich, compelling story, nor is the character worth the emotional and intellectual investment. Sure, his predominant trait as a person is evident in the character, but it’s never analysed nor used to fuel the story thematically. It’s textbook, standard biopic fare.
The Trial of Combat: I wouldn’t fully dismiss a familiar historical drama, but the film, directed by Jerrold Tarog, handles the characters so poorly and the direction is so lousy that this is probably the most inept historical drama I’ve ever watched. The film could’ve easily taken the dramatic route in order to showcase the complexity of the times and more importantly, the brutality and tragedy surrounding Gen. Antonio Luna, but it strangely goes in the opposite direction, attempting bits of comedy every few scenes while also playing Gen. Luna’s bursts of anger for laughs. It’s weird because you’ll have one scene where politicians are debating over the seriousness of the war they’re in while in another scene Gen. Luna is pulling a man by his penis so that he may scold him in front of his troops. Even the first attempt by the film at comedy is also the first big war scene, so the big tonal mismatch is evident almost from the beginning. Instead of getting to know the harshness of Gen. Luna, the well-defined motivations of everyone involved in his execution, and the complexity of the Filipino-American war, we get about half the movie’s worth of snickering at explicit words and side-stepping around character and thematic exploration.
Faceless Soldiers: Because of these tonal flaws, we don’t really get into the real meat of the story. The character relationships aren’t well-defined. We’re only given surface level points that aren’t worth investing in, and most of them are one-note portrayals of historical figures. All of this builds up to a climax that is despicably over-the-top. What should’ve been a quick and devastating death turns into a death scene from The Walking Dead, one that just revels in the brutal violence for no purpose other than to show how brutally violent the death is. The film does this early on as well with a montage of women and children being shot by American soldiers to really showcase how evil they are, and the last shot of the film is the Philippine flag burning to further emphasize the already emphasized theme of the Filipino’s self-destructive behavior. It really aggravates me when filmmakers throw subtlety away because they don’t think the audience is smart enough to pick up on it, because that’s far from true. John Arcilla, who plays the titular character, may be the one good thing to come from this movie. The stage actor upbringing in him really shows in most of the film, as he commands the screen with a presence I’ve seen so few Filipino actors display. However, acting isn’t all about shouting and the grandiose performance, so when it comes to the more drawn back scenes, his performance dips in quality, but he’s what shines the most in the rest of the movie.
Overall: Other than a few possible laughs to be found, Heneral Luna won’t give new depth to General Antonio Luna or to that time in the history of the Philippines. It’s flat, inconsistent, unnecessarily over-the-top, and irritatingly obvious.