Thanks to a well written script, well executed cinematography, solid film direction and stellar performance by its lead, Heneral Luna defies the conventions of a biopic and offers an entertaining yet insightful story of an unfamiliar historical figure whose fight for liberty capture the pervading ills of Filipino society.

Set during the Philippine-American war, a short-tempered Filipino general faces an enemy more formidable than the American army: his own treacherous countrymen.

Similar to last year’s critically acclaimed Mr. Turner, 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 bordering on crazy military smart ass fight for liberty with uncompromising principles, everybody else be damned. He has to fight the better equipped American soldiers and fend off his own selfish countrymen, while hold 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 gifable 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, he’s gun to the head approach cost him his life in a gruesome death. Cinematography compensate 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 In one long sequence, a Steadicam shot is used in a flashback that narrates his childhood with historical references.

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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 which address the nation’s belief in “the woman behind”; 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 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. Soon enough, Heneral Luna quotes have popped up in Buzzfeed.

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.  While the supporting cast is good at portraying believable individuals, none of their characters match up to Luna.

But it can also be said that the movie, even as a farce, is both an educational and an 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 what’s stopping a unified Filipino nation is its own people.

Heneral Luna proves to be a groundbreaking and refreshing historical movie among its peers and a bittersweet reflection on what it truly means to be a Filipino.

My Rating: 8.5/10

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