Oct 12, 2015

[Movies] Heneral Luna (2015)

So Heneral Luna is our next nominee entry for the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film. It has gotten a lot of hype ever since it started playing in theaters and it managed to rouse quite the social media campaign to gather support for the movie and try to keep it in theaters for as long as possible. And thus we finally decided to catch it over the weekend in what may be it's final week of screening in theaters.

We waited this long since (1) we're not exactly into historical biopics and (2) there was the modest fear that we would buck against the overwhelming social media consensus of how awesome the movie is supposed to be should we not like it.

And while we did find it to be better than most movies that come out of local studios, it didn't seem quite as awesome as everyone was claiming it to be. And maybe this was just a case of a movie having hype that was already ridiculously high such that it would be bound to disappointing somehow.

Or maybe not

Synopsis: Heneral Luna is a 2015 historical drama movie directed by Jerrod Tarog. He also co-wrote the screenplay together with Herny Francia and E.A. Rocha.

The story is framed by young journalist Joven Hernando (Arron Villaflor) interviewing General Antonio Luna (John Arcilla), who commands the Philippine revolutionary forces. He and his men represent a strong voice for attacking the Americans pre-emptively to prevent them laying a claim to the country despite their promises to help the fledgling Filipino government expel their Spanish masters. More conservative members of President Aguinaldo's (Mon Confiado) cabinet argue that the Americans have already promised to win independence for the country and then will turn things over to them. But of course as they continue to debate, the Americans take key cities in the country including the capital of Manila in line with the Treaty of Paris where Spain pretty much sold the country to the Americans for $20 million.

Thus the Philippine-American War begins in earnest as Aguinaldo dispatches Luna to fight off the Americans. However Luna is quite the hot-head who is quick to anger - something felt by both his enemies and his men. Not everyone is open to taking direction from Luna, which reflects the highly regional nature of the country and its revolutionary forces. Plus there are those like Felipe Buencmino (Nonie Buencamino) and Pedro Paterno (Leo Martinez), who continue to deal with the Americans in order to secure a peaceful transition that does not get in the way of their business interests.

First, the movie clearly states in an almost defensive manner that this movie is still a work of fiction that is only based on historical events. It reminds me a lot of the introduction to Agoncillo's History of the Filipino People that argued about the need for a "usable past" of sorts. Just short of arguing for revisionist perspectives, the book argued about the need for presenting history in a manner that makes it useful for purposes of building nationalism and such.

Given than, the movie was certainly put together in a manner that made it more entertaining for modern audiences. You had an effort to create larger battle sequences complete with probably nonessential levels of blood and gore (and very bright red ketchup blood). You had a lot of dramatic shots that had characters being all introspective. You also had efforts at more creative sequences like pseudo "one long take" transitions and all that fun stuff.

I can appreciate the effort to paint Luna as this larger than life figure. I can respect the drive at exaggeration to make his personality quirks more evident and to keep him front and center throughout the movie despite everyone else involved. But at the same time we had him at times being a little ridiculous to the point he felt a bit more like a caricature.

And the bit about caricatures is a common theme that we see across characters in the movie. Perhaps it's a consequence of having so many characters to juggle or maybe it's because it's a historical movie. And what I mean by that is that such movies tend to rely on folks knowing their history fairly well and thus being able to react a bit more to this character or that one in the same way comic book movies insert nods to geekier fans. So the movie has little to no character development for everyone involved and instead we just have different historical moments happen one after the other as disparate sequences that don't necessarily flow well together.

Tarog clearly had a vision for this movie and one has to praise him for his effort and his aspirations. However there were still times that things felt short and felt a little contrived. My biggest issue will inevitably involve his use of shaky camera techniques that felt more disruptive to the movie than helpful. Couple that with some weird long shaky camera pans that left me a little dizzy plus unusual over the shoulder perspective shots that didn't really help me understand whose perspective I was supposed to be taking. Most of his dialog utilized more recent Hollywood problematic camera shots that involve cutting back and forth between characters in a conversation instead of taking a wider shot that lets the actors actually interact. So yes, very mixed messaging at work.

And then there's the use of humor in this movie that seemed a bit extreme to the point of giving some tonal confusion in things. You have some very heavy, serious subject matter repeatedly broken by overly comic antics as most demonstrated by the character of Captain José Bernal as portrayed by comedian Archie Alemania. I'm sure he does comedy well, but this was not necessarily the time for that much comedy. And then you cast the likes of Leo Martinez as collaborative members of Aguinaldo's cabinet. The man has been comically playing corrupt government officials for decades now and that same sort of comedic swarminess was evident in this movie as well. There's a difference between breaking tension with a bit of humor and inappropriate comedy that makes things confusing.

At the end I'm not quite sure what Heneral Luna wanted to say about history or what message is had for us. Is he advocating skipping past procedure and policy and going straight to more direct action in a very Machiavellian manner? We'll never really know. And thus the movie only gets 3 comical battlefield explosions out of a possible 5.

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