Thursday, July 23, 2015

AAIFF ’15: Heneral Luna

It ought to set off plenty of alarms bells when a film feels the need to preemptively declare “while historical accuracy is important there are bigger truths about the Filipino nation that can only be reached by combining the real and the imaginary.” Historical pedants, consider yourself warned. On the plus side, this big screen bio-treatment of Philippine-American War General Antonio Luna manages to be less anti-American than John Sayles’ Amigo. Frankly, America is the least of the general’s concerns, compared to the more pressing dangers of the duplicitous rival officers and politicians who scheme against him in Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

There is no getting around the caricatured portrayal of the American military in Tarog’s film, but that is a mere sideshow to its main attraction. As most of the target audience will know, rumors of high level conspiracy and cover-ups have swirled around Luna’s assassination for decades. Essentially, Tarog’s film is intended as a muckraking passion play, laying the blame squarely at the feet of the various military and government officials threatened by Luna’s popularity, competency, and principles.

Initially, we see Luna score some morale boosting half-victories against the Americans, who bought out Spain’s colonial interest just when the Filipinos were poised to drive them out. However, Luna’s drive is undermined by a fractured command structure that allowed most of his generals to report directly to the problematic President Aguinaldo. To assert his authority granted under military protocols, Luna wages secondary wars against his rogue subordinates, at rather inopportune times.

Clearly, this kind of confusion is no way to win a war, which of course they didn’t. Even though Tarog is hardly shy when it comes to waving the bloody shirt, it is the betrayals that most concern the film. Frankly, if Tarog’s version of history is even remotely accurate, it is a minor miracle the Filipino Revolutionary government did not completely implode from within. Some of the backbiting depicted will give even ardent Imperialist-apologists face-palm moments. Yet, probably nobody fares worse in Heneral than Aguinaldo himself, but that should not be so surprising, given his eventual collaboration with the occupying Japanese military in the 1930s.

In addition to its fascinating political score-settling, there is also plenty of old fashioned historical melodrama in Heneral, which is hit or miss. It is hard to see Luna and Isabel, his high society mistress played by Mylene Dizon as a couple. On the other hand, John Arcilla’s Luna is compulsively watchable when spitting nails at unsuspecting slackers. For the most part, it is an appealingly larger than life portrayal.

There are a couple of nicely staged warfighting sequences in Heneral, but most of the carnage comes from the assorted back-stabbings and dressings-down. It is a big, angry bull-in-a-china-shop kind of film, but at least it is more entertaining than a typical Oliver Stone re-write of history. Recommended for those with a taste for messy, chaotic, and opinionated historicals, Heneral Luna screens this Saturday (7/25) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.