Friday, November 6, 2015

The Philippines Oscar submission: Jerrold Tarog's fact-and-fantasy epic HENERAL LUNA

If you didn't already realize it from the opening screen crawl of background and history (cluing us in to the fact that that we're about to see greatly fictionalized story-telling), when one character, in trying to describe the elusive personality of our titular HENERAL LUNA (General Luna, to you non-Spanish or Tagalog speakers), asks, "Have you ever tried to catch the wind?", I think you'll know that you're deep in the land of hagiography. And why not? The film's director, Jerrold Tarog (shown below), himself has described his work as an act of cinematic nation-building,

So, sit back, put your sense of actual history to sleep, and enjoy the old-fashioned, colorful storytelling and performances. If you're Filipino, the film will probably resonate on some level; if not, it will seem awfully by-the-book. It is weakest in providing the kind of specific details of character and dialog that could bring the film to some kind of vivid life. Instead we get the most typical cliches that show us the characters as heroic, cowardly, villainous, loving, waffling, and so on, down the line.

All this certainly makes its point (and also makes the movie completely understandable for school-children and, in fact, has seen major success by filling auditoriums in the nation's schools.). As the most successful independent movie in Filipino history, it also has made its mark as a huge box-office bonanza.

As the movie begins, our Heneral (John Arcilla, above and below) is already in command and quite successful at what he does. The time is just prior to the 19th Century turning into the 20th, as Spain has lost its rule over the Philippines, as well as the Spanish American War and so has "sold" the country to the USA -- which is about to make one of its early misadventures in would-be colonization.

As one character explains it nicely and precisely, "Americans fought for their own liberty. They know we have a right to ours. That makes their aggression inexcusable." All of which is true. But it's funny how power and hypocrisy can so easily turn right into wrong. From the start, Luna has big trouble uniting the various Filipino powers into an integrated whole, what with a weak President and cowardly, lazy, power-hungry underlings (including other generals) all over the place.

The movie takes as its framwork an interview of the General by a young journalist (played by Arron Villaflor, above) who questions his subject concerning the famous man's life and work, and so hands us a fairly standard scenario, enlived now and then by battles and/or politics.

Along the way, we get a mild sex scene between Luna and his paramour (above), and a couple of others between the man and his mom (below). Otherwise it's mostly military stuff: more battles, a little strategy, some gore (we watch as a soldier gets half his head blown off), and one montage showing the predations of the America soldiers against the Filipino populace.

Since Filipinos (and any Americans with a sense of history) will know the outcome here, we  pretty much wait for the good General to get his. When he does, Tarog gifts us with one of the great unintentionally comic death scenes on film, meant, of course, to show us our hero's indomitable spirit. This would be pretty much a disaster for most movies, but since Heneral Luna ends with the following escape clause, we can grin and bear it:

"The characters in this film may resemble real people from the past, but ultimately are products of artistic license. Historical figures, facts -- and even rumors -- were reshaped to serve a consistent narrative theme." Well, yes, and you could make that same statement about Reality TV.

From Abramorama -- running just under two hours, and spoken in Filipino, Tagalog, English and Spanish with English subtitles as needed -- the film made its New York debut last Friday and opens today, November 6, in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

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