The General Lunacy of Empire

22 Sep

Jaime Oscar M. Salazar

Heneral Luna (2015, directed by Jerrold Tarog) is an account of the time that Antonio Luna (John Arcilla) was the commander of the Philippine Revolutionary Army at the end of the 19th century, stringing together episodes from between 1898 and 1899 in order to sketch out the struggles of the first Philippine Republic, led by President Emilio Aguinaldo (Mon Confiado). Notwithstanding the epic possibilities of the material that it plumbs, the film evinces little interest in presenting a broad canvas of the war for independence against the United States of America, which, coming into its own as an empire, was keen to consolidate its control over the archipelago that it had acquired under the Treaty of Paris with Spain. Instead, Heneral Luna is concerned with proposing a kind of hagiography for its titular figure in such a manner that is inflected, perhaps unavoidably, by the blockbuster, or at least studio budget–busting, superhero movies that Hollywood has been reliably churning out in recent years.

The endeavors of the film to flesh Luna out towards “humanness” and “relatability” as he contends against apparently powerful enemies and great odds, or as he stumbles into comic situations—including a riff on the present-day struggles of Filipinos with the English language—are nearly perfunctory in fashion, ticking off such boxes as a major character flaw, loyal sidekicks, a formidable lover, and a doting mother, to wit: a belligerent temper, Eduardo Rusca (Archie Alemania) and Paco Roman (Joem Bascon), Isabel (Mylene Dizon), and Laureana Luna (Bing Pimentel). It also provides Luna with convenient opportunities to launch into monologues about his views on the revolution through the prompting of Joven Hernando (Arron Villaflor), a young journalist who taken it upon himself to develop a profile on the general for a fledgling publication that seeks to carry on the work of the people, Luna among them, behind the pivotal periodical La Solidaridad.

The results are, to say the least, ungainly: its tone is uneven and its movement incoherent, such that one never really grasps a sense of the stakes involved, of the immense height of such stakes; no matter how mightily the visual and aural designs—remarkable in and of themselves—strain to imbue onscreen developments with gravitas, the film is marked by a certain airlessness, a diminutiveness of scale, notably given the performance of Arcilla, whose version of the infamously bellicose Luna at times leaps headlong into the abyss of cartoonishness.

Antonio Luna. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Antonio Luna. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

What makes Heneral Luna deplorable, however, is not the smallness of its world, but the smallness of its mind. This is demonstrated in part by the way that it opens and closes: with statements attesting to its status as a work of fiction. That it insists on drawing attention to what should be patently obvious, not only for films, but also for all narratives, does not, unfortunately, suggest that it has marked out a frame within which it is able to reflect upon itself and the conventions it cleaves to or from—a gesture that would become many a cultural text in these parts, specifically those that arrogate unto themselves the authority to purvey the story of that vexed and vexing entity called “nation”. Rather, the film brandishes these disclaimers in what comes across as an attempt to carve out a vantage from which it is entitled to indulge in oracular pretensions, aided by technical spectacle and burdened by neither rigor nor nuance. Only by “a combination of the real and the imaginary”, it announces at the beginning, can “the truth” about the Philippines be disclosed. And what is this so-called truth? The fight for emancipation, Heneral Luna alleges, was doomed by the very people who waged it, owing to their propensity for internecine strife and their inability to emulate Luna in his love for country, bravery, and, above all, discipline—each Filipino, therefore, is every other Filipino’s worst enemy, especially as represented in the film by a weak Aguinaldo and the unscrupulous duo of Felipe Buencamino (Nonie Buencamino) and Pedro Paterno (Leo Martinez); Aguinaldo and Buencamino are implicated in Luna’s brutal death.

It is not that “nation” should be understood as beyond criticism, because it well deserves the sharpest possible scrutiny that we can bring to bear upon it, regardless of what we end up discovering, reconsidering, and evaluating about ourselves—a difficult task to which we have not always been equal. The radicalness in the act of truth-telling that this film deludes itself into claiming, however, lies not in the boldness to proclaim unpleasantries as such, but in the fortitude to resist the simplistic in favor of the complex, and in the courage to renounce self-loathing in favor of hope.

To lay the blame for the failure of the revolution squarely at the feet of our people, to maintain that we lacked the will and the willingness to unite under a common cause—these are assertions nourished by utterly niggardly notions of nation and nationalism, of colonialism and imperialism. The extent of the destitution is adumbrated in the character of Luna himself, who, in spite of his repeated invocations of the need for discipline, is helpless to regulate his own puerile impulses and violent rages, pointing up the self-serving nature of his declarations—for instance, a cabinet meeting that does not go according to his liking provokes him to threaten a frail old man walking through the town plaza and shoot dead the chicken that the man was carrying in a basket—but the film is brazen in its incognizance, electing to exempt Luna and, even worse, the Americans, from any sort of accountability as it drives home its appalling point: that, by killing Luna, supposedly the sole bulwark of patriotism, it became the “manifest destiny” of the Philippines to be conquered, to be oppressed, to be crushed. In its contrivance of an allusion to Spoliarium (1884), by Luna’s brother Juan, the film recasts the allegory in defeatist terms: Heneral Luna is extravagant demagoguery that functions as a ringing endorsement of empire.

Why this message seems to have resonated so positively among the people who have watched the film—some have even come away from it professing to have gained deeper insight into Philippine history and culture—is beyond the scope of this review, but the fact that it does should give cause for alarm, particularly in an electoral season that has been marked by the resurgence of popular longings for the caress of an iron hand, for the smell of “gold and blood and flame”. Why are we so besotted by authoritarianism, and what will it take to dispel our paternalist lunacies?


Jaime Oscar M. Salazar works for an international humanitarian organization.


Posted by on 22 September 2015 in Film Review, Philippine Film



27 responses to “The General Lunacy of Empire

  1. S.D. Lagar

    22 September 2015 at 11:32 PM

    With all due respect, Sir, it is not about the resurgence of “popular longings for the caress of an iron hand”. Some may have felt something beyond this “new craze”, something attainable yet unexplainable. The movie is not about General Luna, it is not about the depiction of what had transpired hundred years ago, but rather about what Filipinos should be, what a true Filipino should be, what true patriotism should be even in our generation. A patriotism so true that it invalidates an old adage “blood is thicker than water”; that true that people think of people, not just of family but of the majority. (P.S. just my two cents. Excuse my grammar)

  2. JC Mac (@kein_Jurist)

    23 September 2015 at 1:38 AM

    The review/critique is misplaced. The film ultimately is a character study, a historical biopic. It doesn’t have to “paint a broad canvas” of the entire war. That’s the track the director chose (like how the reviewer chose to write in a pretentiously meandering manner). Calling the film “small-minded” is quite lame and is simply nitpicking. The planned trilogy might give him the unreasonable scale that he demands from a film that is based largely on “The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna” by Dr. Vivencio Jose.

    And Heneral Luna is far from a hagiography. The fact that the film showed Luna’s contradictions and faults that led to him being hated by everyone aside from his own troops is far from a glorification of Luna. He is shown as close-minded and stubborn despite being an educated Ilustrado. There’s the outrageous shooting of a chicken and the slapping of a Cabinet member. There’s the abandonment of a post just to have a petty confrontation with another general. Those ugly scenes are based on historical accounts. The director even used “A Question of Heroes” by Nick Joaquin as an inspiration to add an irreverent tone to the film.

    It’s hard to understand how the reviewer has problems with a tragedy (in a literary sense) like this movie that “promotes” self-loathing and a defeatist attitude.

    And it’s even harder to comprehend how Heneral Luna, by simply translating to film how Antonio Luna was treacherously hacked by Kawit soldiers, is an ENDORSEMENT OF AN EMPIRE.
    I say, wow, that’s quite a stretch, simply because whether or not the film framed defeat as the “manifest destiny” of the Philippines, that is our history. We WERE actually defeated by the Americans.

    • olingliteratus

      23 September 2015 at 10:58 AM

      My take exactly, endorsement of an empire? I could not see even a hint of that from the movie. Another thing, Luna was never portrayed as a saint in the movie. His flaws were crystal clear in the movie and for the audience to judge.

  3. Dr Lloyd Bautista

    23 September 2015 at 9:35 AM

    The film has to be viewed as a nuanced perspective of what transpired during those turbulent years. Likewise, some of the facts were derived from the dissertation of UP Dean Vivencio Jose, who incisively written on the life and work of Antonio Luna.

    I beg to disagree with your comments that Antonio Luna excluded himself from his own proselytizing dictum. In fact, there were scenes that underpinned his sense of nationhood over his own personal and familial interest, such as letting his brother be locked in prison for unruly behavior despite his recognized power.

    The incident with the frail old man only depicts both the humanity and weaknesses of the characters in the film. Like many of us, our national heroes are not immune from passion, frailties and mistakes in choices. The film did not side with any faction nor it galvanized Antonio Luna as an impeccable hallmark of nationalism. What it did show is from our own limitations we can transcend and become extraordinary individuals by thinking and acting more for others rather than ourselves.

    I take exception to your statement that the film blamed us. I did not felt alluded to similar to present-day Japanese who saw the brutalities committed by their ancestors during World War II films. What I felt is not consternation to who I am, but an aspiration of who I can be. In each Filipino is a Luna yearning to be better, to excel, and to die for his country.

    Undoubtedly, you missed the whole point of the film.

    • JC Mac (@kein_Jurist)

      24 September 2015 at 11:30 AM

      Intellectualism is great. We need that. But we have had enough of faux-intellectualism. Writing like this is ostentatious and, oh, can start a meaningful discussion, but when you actually read the piece, the ideas are meager, yet it asks too much from a movie like a panel of academics tearing down a dissertation. The reviewer’s mind is too fixated on calling the film a hagiography. Damned if you show the character’s flaws, damned if you don’t. Nitpicking. I bet with that kind of thinking, all biographical accounts are hagiographies.

      Anyone can say that there is poor character development and over-the-top acting. Anyone can be a film critic. The takeaway from this review is that the movie sucks, the acting is bad, the characters are cardboard cut-outs, Antonio Luna is treated like Tony Stark, and there isn’t enough hate for the Americans. A biopic (!!) that is airless, small-minded, and has a diminutive scale?

      But, really? I mean, really? Let’s agree to disagree.

      There’s a better, nuanced review written by Hansel Juliano and Kevin Ansel Dy.
      A similar point, but there are no ridiculous and sweeping claims of “endorsement of imperialism” or “promotion of defeatism.” It understands that a film might have an opposite effect than what the creators actually intended, there are no throwing of tantrums when the Americans are not vilified to a pulp, and does not treat the plot device of internal struggle as an excuse for imperialism.

  4. pepi de leon

    23 September 2015 at 3:13 PM

    punyeta. nahirapan akong magbasa.

  5. Funker Doodle

    23 September 2015 at 3:23 PM

    This is the best example of writing to impress. Not to express. This would be better using the K.I.S.S. Principle.

    • Sharon Borromeo

      25 September 2015 at 7:37 AM

      Exactly! Nuff said!

    • Joan Mae

      07 October 2015 at 3:41 PM

      This article is full of pretense.

  6. El Fili Busted

    23 September 2015 at 9:19 PM

    Huwag mo akong iinglesin sa sarili kong bayan puñeta!

    • cliff

      23 September 2015 at 11:10 PM

      hehehe malinaw mong naisulat na ikaw at mga katulad mo ang problema ng lipunan.habang ang hangarin ng pelikula ay ibunyag ang dahilan ng pagkakatalo dahil sa yabang at ganid ng mga pa intelectual,lalo mo ngayong pinalalala ang hidwaan.

  7. Sakit sa ulo

    23 September 2015 at 11:55 PM

    Naubos ang oras ko kakahanap ng point, wala naman. Ano tong nasulat na ito? May katabi bang thesaurus at gumagamit ng mga salita di bagay sa tema?

    “Heneral Luna” deplorable? What I find deplorable is the quality of commercial movies that big companies make. Panay mga kabet, panay walang kuwentang comedy. Have you seen other Filipino movies lately?

    This is a film based on a history. If we are not willing to learn the lessons of history, then we are doomed to repeat it. That is the point of the film. Not this Luna-worship or “defeatist” that this writer is trying to portray.

    In short, humahanga kami sa pagkagawa ng pelikula dahil pinag-isipan ito mabuti. Hindi tulad ng sumulat nito.

  8. Maurice

    24 September 2015 at 6:30 AM

    Off-tangent critique – impressive long winding writing : most probably consciously intended.

  9. Marlon

    24 September 2015 at 9:09 AM

    bro if you think people will be impressed with your writing, we’re not. it’s like you have a dictionary with you while you’re writing this article. just go straight to your point. you look like a douche that just had his first dictionary. pointless article.

  10. Adam

    24 September 2015 at 11:32 AM

    The longest nonsense I’ve ever read. Roger Egbert wanna be?

  11. Nico

    24 September 2015 at 1:44 PM

    Your review of the movie is nothing but ” pa sossy effect “, trying hard and ” kulang sa pansin “. I respect your review and it just strengthened my admiration to the movie and what you have written can be related to one famous line in the movie the line goes like this ” May mas malaking kaaway pa tayong mga Filipino ” the bigger enemy of us Filipinos are just like you,Filipinos who has the crab mentality running through your veins.

  12. anne shirley

    24 September 2015 at 5:22 PM

    Ang haba ng sinulat… pero ano ang talagang punto? Maganda ang pagkakagawa ng pelikula at naiiba kumpara sa mga pinipilahan ng manonood na ang tanging makikita ay make-up at damit ng mga artista.

  13. Lone Druid

    24 September 2015 at 8:56 PM

    Writer: This movie is trying hard to impress, but failed in all aspects.

    Me: No. This article is trying hard to impress, but failed in all aspects.

    Mr. Salazar was probably hurt at the anti-imperialistic theme of the film. He loves US so much he doesn’t want to see it hurt. That’s why he works at an international organization. USAID?

    I haven’t met a patriotic Filipino who doesn’t like the film. This is even better than the Rizal movie, years back. In fact, this is one of the best Filipino films in whatever genre made in the past decade.

    Dear writer, can you think of one? Or you probably think that Filipino movies are not worth watching. Ues, you would probably prefer Hollywood films. Para kang birhen na naniniwala sa pag-ibig ng isang puto.

    Tinamaan ka ba? Bigyan kitang tatlong araw, maghanap ka ng kakampi.

  14. RobbieM

    26 September 2015 at 8:04 AM

    You lost me at hagiography. Pompous twat.

  15. ConcernedCitizen

    27 September 2015 at 5:20 AM

    Sobrang pedantic basahin ng review mo! Bwiset ka napakaboring mo para sa audience which is obviously the fucking youth! Kaya ka nga nasa YCC eh! Ano, dedepensahan mo nanaman ang sarili mo, eh halata naman nagpapakitang gilas ka para mapabilang sa academe! You failed. And i dont trust the ycc anymore because of you! Hoy editor talagang ganito kayo no, mahiya nga kayo! Gawin nyo itong ganito kung nagtuturo kayo ng formal criticism eh hindi naman diba? Wala nga kayong pake basta nasulat nyo na ok na! Assume the intelligent audience mindset nyo eh! Sana naman gumising na kayo ang tatanda nyo na alam nyo naman ang kulang at tamang gawain eh! Sana may may pake ka sa iba mr. Editor i.e. sa mga readers nyo na naghahanap ng sustansya at patuloy na naghahanap ng sensible film criticism. Lalo na ang pelikulang to, na sarili nating history ang basehan.

    Hindi ko pinagtatanggol ang HENERAL LUNA kung yun ang iniisip nyo, mas concerned ako sa artikulong to dahil paano natin ipapagpatuloy ang kritisimo sa ating mga pelikula kung ganito kayo magpahayag ng ideya! Sana naman naging mapagbigay kayo sa mga gumawa, nanood at hindi pa nakakanood ng pelikulang sariling atin. Generosity in a new perspective lang sana na madali maintindihan! Geeeettttsss nyo?

    Ps. Kung seryoso kayong mga taga ycc, sana naman bumili kayo ng sarili nyong domain name! Mag ambagan kayo para mawala yang “” o kung ayaw nyo. Ok lang! Mahack sana kayo.

  16. ConcernedCitizen

    27 September 2015 at 5:22 AM

    Nak ng awaiting moderation pa?? Ano to nagbabayad ba kayo ng buwis para sa ikakaunlad ng bansa or atleast ng industriya ng pelikulang filipino? Mahiya ka nga sa nanay mo, admin!

  17. rafaelpadilla

    30 September 2015 at 1:18 AM

    are you talking about the film or about the way you write?

  18. valdezjo

    09 October 2015 at 11:20 PM

    Heneral Luna is actually the most sensible film in local cinema today. My take:

  19. kurt

    13 February 2016 at 1:07 AM

    Solid review.


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