Fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll…hey, where are you going? Cowards! Come back! I take back what I said about you dying in your beds. Come back here right now or I WILL KILL YOU MYSELF!!
Spain’s 333-year rule of the Philippines has collapsed. Rather than face humiliation from Filipino rebels, Spain sells the archipelago to the United States for 30 million dollars. As America prepares to claim its new colony, Filipinos argue against one another, returning to a regionalist mentality. Within the Philippine Army, one man struggles to unite the country into one tidal wave of resistance.
That man is, of course, General Antonio Luna, Commander of the Philippine Revolutionary Army. And he may just get his chance. At a meeting with the President, First Prime Minister, and others, Luna demands that the Philippine forces drive out the American troops while there are only 3,000 of them on the islands compared to the 40,000 Filipino troops. First Prime Minister Apolinario Mabini says that another 7,000 American troops are expected to arrive. General Jose Alejandrino, Director of Agriculture and Industry, insists that this is all the more reason to attack now. Others at the meeting, however, remain unconvinced. Head of the Cabinet Pedro Paterno argues that the United States did not invade Cuba after kicking Spain off that land, and should be treated as an ally instead of an enemy. Luna responds with insults against their patriotism, courage, and manhood. President Emilio Aguinaldo says that America had promised peace, so the Philippines must play along for now. Mabini reframes that decision: that they should wait to see what the Americans do, but allow for Luna to strengthen his forces in case war breaks out.
It is then that Aguinaldo is given a letter. A surprise encounter between a squad of Filipino troops and a platoon of Americans has resulted in dead Filipinos. Americans have taken over Manila along with several towns. A stunned Aguinaldo gives Luna the go ahead. Luna gets in a few more insults at the business elites and leaves the meeting along with his military associates.
As a voiceover extols the benevolence of a free and civilized America, American troops go through cities, towns, and villages. They exercise their Manifest Destiny by harassing civilians, beating them up, shooting them, and burning down their homes.
The first battle starts so suddenly that even Luna has to take a moment to realize that it is happening. He is in the trench as what looks like a company of troops defend a village against oncoming Americans. It is not going particularly well, as Filipino troops die and others flee. A Captain Janolino has refused to come with reinforcements without direct orders from President Aguinaldo.
Luna leaves the battlefield to find Janolino. He finds Janolino’s troops just lounging about doing nothing. The struggle to stand in formation to greet him, but with little discipline. One of a couple of troops who chuckle at Luna’s outbursts gets Luna’s revolver stuck in his face. Luna finds Janolino asleep in a house, wakes him up with water, and points his revolver at Janolino’s head. Janolino again argues that he takes orders only from the president, and Luna throws him to the floor. Luna presses his gun against Janolino’s head again as Colonel Francisco “Paco” Román, reads Article One of the Rules and Regulations, which states that anyone who refuses the orders of the General will be stripped of rank and executed without trial. Luna does not kill him Janolino, but grabs him by his genitals and walks him out to his men. It is unclear whether he orders Janolino’s men to follow him to the battlefield, since he had just ordered them to be disarmed and stripped of their ranks, but he leaves anyways.
In any case, the battle is still not going well. The insufficiently trained troops are still dying and fleeing. So Luna rides a horse over the trench, which leads his troops to run after him. American General Arthur MacArthur Jr. orders his troops to fire on Luna specifically. They manage to shoot him off of his horse, but he hides behind a barrel and Paco catches up to him. Meanwhile, the other Filipino troops charge forwards. MacArthur casually decides that engaging further would not be worth the casualties and calls for a retreat so that they can have dinner on time. Luna knows that this was not a real victory, but Paco tells him that this was real enough for his troops. They are energized now and will need his leadership more than ever.
Luna’s antics have both annoyed and impressed MacArthur. Meanwhile, the American soldiers are getting sick from various ailments and the food resupply is coming only when the reinforcements arrive. MacArthur is certain that the Philippine army will crumble if he can just get Luna, but a soldier reminds him that there are others within the Philippine government who still want to negotiate, specifically the businessmen. Perhaps the strategy should not be simply killing everyone, but exacerbate existing tensions within the Philippine leadership.
Speaking of the leadership, General Tomas Mascardo accompanies Janolino to complain about Luna to President Aguinaldo. They claim that he is arrogant and crazy; that he humiliated them during the battle. Something should be done. Aguinaldo seems to agree, but First Prime Minister Mabini still supports Luna.
The next day, Luna outlines his strategy to his officers, which involves retreating to fortress with an extensive trench system and engaging in guerrilla warfare. His officers are unsure, thinking that the project is too ambitious in terms of the number of people needed to build it and getting Aguinaldo to approve of it. Luna claims that he can get it started in three days, taking two subordinates to ride around to several military camps. He returns to headquarters the next day followed by four thousand troops and volunteers, twice the number that was thought to be required. How did Luna get them to come? With a rousing speech about national dignity? Nope. He just told them about the First Article of the Rules and Regulations.
With the “volunteers” there, Luna leaves General Alejandrino in charge so he can sequester a train to transport troops. Unfortunately, some of the troops have invited their families onto the train, making it impossible for other troops to get on. So Luna gets on the train and…um…whips the family members out. He later complains that Filipinos would do anything for their families to the detriment of the country, that true Filipino patriots are too rare. As if on cue, he learns that his brother Joaquin was among a group of troops arrested for unruly behavior. Joaquin had protested that he was Luna’s brother in an attempt to gain his freedom, but an amused Luna says that he should stay locked up.
Of course, this trip was not merely to transport troops. Luna also went to visit his secret girlfriend, Isabel, who works in the Red Cross. Not exactly family, but…still. He dismisses her worry about a war wound, and she complains that he is married to war, that he is a sadist. He insists that war is a burden that he endures, but she does not believe it and decides to break off their relationship.
At another meeting of the Filipino leadership, Secretary of Development Felipe Buencamino, says that the Americans are offering some kind of autonomy for the Philippines as a protectorate. Alejandrino and Luna protest, calling it treasonous to even propose such a deal. Buencamino insists that he is merely reporting it. Luna retorts that Buencamino is among those at the table who had worked for the Spanish government, and is automatically unworthy of trust. Buencamino argues that America has become the strongest country in the world, and that being part of that power would do wonders for the Philippines. All he can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. Luna calls Buencamino a traitor and a coward, and said that he saw Buencamino’s son desert the battlefield. Buencamino calls Luna a lunatic. Luna then assaults Buencamino, and then orders his men to arrest him, along with Pedro Paterno, who had suggested stopping the war. Mabini says that it is within Luna’s authority to do so, so Buencamino and Paterno are taken away. Before he leaves the meeting, Luna states to the remaining men that a divided Philippines is an enemy worse than the Americans, and that radical changes must happen to overcome that. The fortress project is not brought up.
Luna steps outside the government building and is quickly surrounded by people selling their wares. There are so many of them and they are so close that he starts to look a little anxious. It is not clear if the civilians know who he is, but he looks like a bigshot. Speaking of bigshot, he disperses the crowd by pulling out his revolver and pointing it at one poor chicken seller who had not managed to flee fast enough. The terrified man begs for mercy, and his servile groveling only hardens Luna’s contempt for him. If the men at the table represented the nation’s selfishness, then this man represents its weakness. Luna yells at the man to shut up and shoots at his chicken baskets, killing one of the chickens.
Luna shouts to anyone still within shouting range that this is what he will do to all traitors and none will be exempt, not even the president. He then calms down, apologizes to the man, and gives him some money to make up for the basket that he broke and the chicken that he killed. But General Mascardo has witnessed the whole thing. He had felt that the arrogant easily angered Luna had overstepped his authority many times, but this may be an overstep too far.
I struggled to put into words why I enjoyed this movie, primarily because some of the reasons lead directly towards a rather worrying question that I would rather not answer. Still, I will give it a shot.
This is a telling of the story General Antonio Luna, an influential and controversial military leader. The movie is upfront that the telling is heavily fictionalized, using the desire to show a “greater truth” as an explanation. Whether having an actor who was 50 portray a person who was in his early 30’s at the time got to a greater truth is up to individual viewers, I suppose.
In any case, he is the first person whom we see in the movie. The second person is a journalist named Joven. A completely fictional character (as is Isabel), Joven is part soundboard for Luna’s opinions as well as a completely starstruck supporter. It is through him that we first hear Luna talk about his disgust for the Filipino political elites and businessmen. It is through him that we hear Luna talk about how Filipinos would sell out their country for the sake of their regions, their tribes, their families, and themselves. And it is through him that we hear Luna claims that America’s imperial ambitions are especially detestable, given the war for independence that their own ancestors had fought only a century earlier. Since these exchanges never happened in the first place, the movie makes little attempt to fit them into the plot or chronology of the movie, only to fit thematically.
Whether it be a directorial choice or simply a matter of limited budget, I felt that it was interesting that the movie went kind of small at times, particularly in the battle scenes. With the possible exception of the scene with the 4,000 volunteers, the movie did little to hide the fact that there were only a few dozen American troops fighting a few dozen Filipino troops. No one was hidden behind fog or whatever; the Americans were all out in the middle of a field and the Filipinos were in the village; everyone was in full view. The scenes are well shot and choreographed and the CGI was pretty seamless, so I am assuming that the scale was all part of a deliberate aesthetic to be intimate and immediate instead of epic. They are less inspirationally impressive as they are frustratingly relatable.
This limited scale can sometimes give the movie a darkly comic tone, and the movie leans into it at times. Thanks in part to the music choices, parts of the battle scenes come across as a comedy of errors, with Luna shouting in exasperation, laughing out of frustration, or just laughing. The other characters are no better. Those who flee the battle are looked upon with contempt. And while some who die are treated as heroes or victims, others receive no reverence. One guy looks over the trench despite another character yelling at him to get down. The first guy does not get down and the top half of his head explodes as a result. The second person seems more upset to have gotten pieces of the first guy’s head on him. Instead of showing the Filipino soldiers as a band of misfits bonded by bloodshed against a mighty foe, the movie portrays the majority of them as a bunch of moronic goofballs, with a few patriots who are constantly frustrated with their supposed comrades in arms. As for the American troops, they seem to treat this whole campaign of murder and destruction as a lark, stopping only if the leaders get bored or hungry.
That said, the occasional dips into unrealism is not always done for comedy. There is one sequence around 2/3 of the way through that I found to be extremely impressive from a technical, artistic, and dramatic standpoint. It would not have fit in a film with a more epic scope or one that had taken itself too seriously up to that point.
This comedic tone may help to make more palatable the core of the film: the Antonio Luna of this film is a goddamn lunatic. It is as if the filmmaker was obsessed with that scene from Patton where Patton almost pulls out his gun on a trooper who is suffering from PTSD. He has moments of introspection, of poetry, of romance, of serenity. But most of these moments are private. In public, Luna screams, he threatens violence against unarmed people, he commits violence upon civilians. He does not care. And his actions are treated as comical. Yet, it has a purpose. He laughs not because things are funny. He laughs because the Filipino people are a joke to him. He has nothing but disdain for the majority of the populace, be they the elite or the lowly. He laughs because he fights for a people that does not deserve his fight, and that does not seem to want it anyways. There are moments where he also seems to be frozen in anxiety or fear, but I am not sure if he is afraid for his life or afraid of what he is about to unleash from within himself.
As funny as the movie can be, it is not quite a satire, at least not at the expense of Luna. There does seem to be a clear message; an angry confrontational message. Luna may not have been a hero. He may have been as psychotic as others have said. He may have been as temperamental, arrogant, and dangerous as they have said. He may have been a power-hungry warmonger. But maybe a person with those flaws was the only person in a highly divided Philippines who could stand up to the might of the Americans. The movie invites the audience to share in his contempt for the people who place anything else above defending and strengthening the nation. The people’s tendency towards disloyalty and self-destruction made possible the brutal colonization by foreign powers, and would persist after those foreign powers leave. Perhaps if the people were more deserving of his loyalty, then a homicidal lunatic like him would not have been needed in the first place to drag the country out of the pit. The Philippines may be an independent nation now, but the filmmakers argue that there are still major elements of society keeping the country down in the pit. Spain had over three centuries to exploit the regionalism among the Filipinos in order to keep them from rising up as one. That disunity had become cooked into the fractured culture and would not simply disappear in a year or even a century.
And that brings me to the question that I am afraid to answer: did this movie help to usher in the Duterte Presidency? From what I can tell, this movie—which was the most popular historical Filipino film up to that point—was released nine months to the day before Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines. Duterte is…well…he has been described as the Asian Donald Trump, though he had been in politics for longer than Trump and was elected president a few months earlier than Trump was. Also, he has a death squad. Granted, Duterte had received only 39% of the votes, but given that there were five parties in the running and I guess no coalition to block his win…he won. So…did this movie help to usher in the Duterte Presidency?
I do not know. I do not particularly want to know. I mean, unless the answer is no. And I have trouble believing that that could be true. The dark comedy that I love in this movie does not temper or mask the message, only makes it come across as more palatable and less didactic. I cannot believe that it was as popular as it was without having any effect. But…I mean, I am viewing this as an ignorant outsider with no personal or direct connection to it. Maybe it was popular because there were already people primed to throw their support behind a dangerously unstable maniac like Don Duterte, believing that the violence in his wake simply means he gets results, you stupid chief. Either way, my watching this movie does not affect my ability to influence Philippine national politics. Even if I do read up on how things went or hear from Filipinos personally, I will never truly understand how things were or how things are. So while my own political beliefs and background may bias me against certain movies that may be objectively miles better than this one (screw you, The Human Condition), I feel like I can look at this one primarily as a highly entertaining movie with some arguably problematic elements, which can be said about many of the movies in this series. It is not the first patriotic movie that I have discussed in this series and will probably not be the last. I may not be Filipino…but could I still be part of the problem?
The success of this movie spawned a sequel called Goyo. I really enjoyed that movie as well and recommend it. There have been plans to make a third movie and maybe even a fourth, but scheduling issues pushed those plans back and the current Pandemic may hurt those plans even further. In any case, we have this one and I like it very much.
WTF ASIA 101: High and Low (Japan: 1963, approx. 143 minutes)
WTF ASIA 102: Spacked Out (Hong Kong: 2000, approx. 90 minutes)
Erm…well…this is on Youtube, but the video length is misleading and you will need to get subtitles from somewhere else if you do not understand Cantonese.