‘Heneral Luna’ film review

You might be uncomfortable with the word “Hero.” I know I am. It is such a loaded word normally when I think of it in a political context. Who makes national heroes? Well, politicians. Why? Normally because they have an agenda that they want to push, and they single out people who they see fit the ideology they want to back. The Filipino national heroes then, are people who push forward an idea of nationhood for which they have sacrificed much. Being someone raised between two cultures (I am Filipino-British), I find this idea uneasy. I see the nation as an organizational construct, not something particularly worth dying for or espousing violence for in order to protect. But if I look at the hero from a particularly artistic perspective, I am more at ease. A hero is a main character who pushes the plot of a story forward. In a sense, national heroes do the same—they are movers of our national narrative, one that is not as simple and straightforward as our high school history books would suggest. Antonio Luna, then, is one such person in our history, and the DAKILA Collective, an organization that seeks to inspire heroism in the country’s youth, did a great job by screening this biographical film for young Cebuanos before its official September 15 release date.

Plot: the Philippine’s Forgotten War

The film begins at the start of the Philippine-American war as the Spanish flee the Philippines and the Americans start to take over. The local government of Emilio Aguinaldo (Mon Confiado) is unsure whether to compromise on Filipino sovereigntywith American protection or to begin another war to assert the independence of the young Republic. During the deliberations in the Aguinaldo Cabinet, Luna (John Arcilla) convinces the President to fight and remain true to patriotic ideals. Luna, being the Filipinos’ best tactician, leads the defense against the Americans, and, well, you should know the story as the rest is history.

History as Action Movie

Heneral Luna is history as filmmaking in the Mel Gibson mode. It is quite light on historical accuracy (the script is written in modern language), but it did take the most juicy parts of the Luna story and dramatized it entertainingly. Like Gibson’s historical movies, the baddies are really bad (the Americans, those genocidal bastards!), and Luna is a flawed but macho hero, admirably characterful. I am glad that the director, Jerrold Tarog, portrayed Luna’s craziness with some emphasis, as it lifted the film above the normal Filipino historical/hagiographical movie. Luna still comes out as quirkily lovable, however, as it is clear that the film creators love their hero.

Hero Vs. Politician

Special mention has to go to Nonie Buencamino, who was the most watchable performer in the movie, despite having a despicable role as the traitorous politician Felipe Buencamino (no relation, I think). His character was not written very sympathetically, but the humanity in Nonie’s acting made me really question if he was such a bad guy. The problem with the hero vs. politician struggle is that to be a good hero is very different from being a good politician. A hero stands up for their beliefs against all odds, while politicians are compromisers. They have to be the pragmatic ones who are less ideologically minded and think about what would really be the best move for the people.

Personally, I have more admiration for the good politician as opposed to the good military man. Give me a non-violent Ghandi or Mandela any day over any glorification of bloodshed. However, diplomatic talks are less diverting than explosive battlefields. Heneral Luna does do what the director in his introduction to the film in the Dakila Collective showing said he wanted, to open up a discussion about Filipino heroism. The fact that he introduces this question in such a theatrical and bombastic way in this film is very admirable. For bringing out the inherent fun in our history, Luna and Tarog, I salute you!

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