Heneral Luna foregoes the conventional approach to a biopic by portraying its subject as an individual, rather than focusing on career highlights to put him on a pedestal.
It doesn’t take long for the story to take entertaining turns as the passionate borderline crazy General fight for liberty with uncompromising principles.
He has to fight the better equipped American soldiers and fend off his own selfish countrymen while holding together an ill-equipped and divided army. In a funny sequence, he has a back and forth argument with General Mascardo who refuses to follow his orders. The insubordinate bravely proclaims, “Kung gusto mo ako ipakulong, magdala ka nang kabaong”. And yes, he did.
This colorful but polarizing character is brought to life by a commanding performance by John Arcilla, who fills the screen with meme-worthy iconic moments. He gives depth to every line that is either amusingly blunt – “Paano ako lalaban? Kakagatin ko sila?”, poetic – “Ang taong my damdamin ay hindi alipin”, or both – “Para kayong birhen na naniniwala sa pag-ibig ng isang puta!”.
Eventually, his gun to the head approach cost him his life in a gruesome death. Cinematography compensates for the limited practical and visual effects, enabling key moments such as this to retain their impact.
Deft camera work immerses the audience in Luna’s point of view. In one long sequence, a Steadicam shot is used in a flashback that narrates his childhood with historical references.
This narrative approach in teaching history and Filipino values is what makes Heneral Luna stand out from the rest of its peers in the genre. It’s intelligent but not academic.
In one scene, there’s a quick flashback of Andres Bonifacio’s death during a conversation between Mabini and Aguinaldo. In another, Felipe Buencamino fires back at Luna by mentioning his brother Juan, who killed his wife in a fit of jealousy. This clever delivery culminates in the best moment of the movie – a nod to Juan’s Spoliarum, which proved to the Spaniards that indio’s can paint better than their own artists.
Those who are observant will find meaningful details. These include quick shots of female soldiers; the difference in the soldier’s uniforms which conveyed divisiveness, and the gradual deterioration of the Philippine flag as a symbol for the movie.
It’s also worth noting that these moments are filled with an archaic Tagalog that is used efficiently and culturally tasteful, even when Luna is spewing curses.
Deft execution though, couldn’t spare Heneral Luna from certain flaws. It has some pacing problems. It lacks that war-torn look of grit and grime.
But it can also be said that the movie, even as a farce, is both an educational and insightful Filipino story.
It’s able to portray the ugly truth – regionalistic mentality – that the movie reveals in funny ways. Dissension spreads in the ranks from top to bottom as self-interest split a supposedly united military government into factions. There’s no specific antagonist and there are times that even Luna becomes his own enemy. The movie cleverly shows that often, what’s stopping a unified Filipino nation is its own people.
These truths, in turn, leads to a potent question – is the Philippines better off as a colony of an advanced first-world country, or should the Filipinos be left to their own devices even when there’s plenty of evidence that progress will always be out of reach because of their own hands?
The answer to this is complicated. Heneral Luna is a reflection of both the country’s past and the present. It’s up to the youth what to do with the lessons from their elders.
Heneral Luna offers an entertaining yet insightful story of a historical figure whose fight for liberty captures the pervading ills of Filipino society.