Heneral Luna as Propaganda

Clinton Palanca explores why a movie set in 1898 has hit a nerve in present-day Philippines.

 

(SPOT.ph) It is probably too late to say anything original about Heneral Luna, the biographical film about Antonio Luna that first appeared as a blip in the periphery of the middle-class consciousness at the beginning of the month. It quickly went from being one of those local films that we all feel we ought to watch to support the local film industry and independent filmmakers; but lucky if one gets to catch it in the three days before it gets reduced to afternoon slots and the smallest theater of the multiplex. It’s now going into its third week, and even late-night weekday shows are packed. 


The hype is justified. Everyone should go see Heneral Luna, if only because it puts other historical films to shame—especially the big studios’ hagiographic entries for the Metro Manila Film Festival—for what it was able to achieve with the large but not exorbitant production budget it had. If one auteur and his team could do this with well-executed digital capture and doing his own edit, why does it feel more authentic than other mainstream historical dramas working with larger casts, more equipment, and well-honed publicity machinery?

 

There is a big difference between managing to get right historical detail to the most excruciating standards of authenticity, and getting something that feels authentic. The best scholars might provide tedious correctness that will stay the pens of peevish historian nutters who will write in to point out anachronisms; but this isn’t as important as whether the audience buys it or not. Take the language, for example: it’s not so much correct as it is believable. It feels right to the ear. The camerawork and the color timing are stellar, putting us in a world that feels distanced by time while being believably familiar and intimate.

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Once you get the audience to a place where they no longer giggle, then you can do what you like within the world that you have created. What director Jerrold Tarog has wrought forth is not so much tell a story as expound on a thesis. Heneral Luna is a contemporary parable told using the imagery and characters of historical drama. The entirety of the movie can be boiled down to one line, and it’s already in the trailer. Having established its premise, the movie goes on to illustrate the many ways in which we managed to validate it. Other random mutterings are declaimed to a willing listener, in one of the movie’s most clichéd tropes, an interview by a young journalist (named Joven, get it?), a.k.a. the walking, talking Expository Device. 


Heneral Luna is a propaganda film, in the tradition of Hero, the Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s 2002 film about the unification of China, which has a similar theme. But it’s propaganda we like, so we’re okay with it. In fact, one might even say it’s propaganda we need. The film could be read as an allegory on the traffic in Metro Manila; if only a Luna, people sigh wistfully, could assemble all the mayors in one room like all the insubordinate generals and knock their heads together. It could be a film about the government, with Emilio Aguinaldo, the “first” president (I’ll put that in inverted commas to cut down on angry letters from the Bonifacio people), whose indecisiveness and inaction could be interpreted to stand in as a parallel to the vacillation of the 15th. The film has even been accused of being a campaign for a return to authoritarianism. It’s no wonder that people on social media continually marvel at how relevant the film is to the present day: it’s a two-hour treatise on the current state of the nation, couched in the costumes and poetic intonations of a fictive 1898. 

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This is not meant to be an indictment of the film. The best propaganda, like the best of any genre, transcends its purpose or niche and stands to be assessed, and enjoyed, in its own right and on its own merits. And even if you emerge from the reality distortion field of being in the theater with a cheering audience and, upon closer examination, start to see the seams in the fabric of the scenery, you would have to be pretty clinical not to have had the film get you where it matters: the gut. This film is not about a history lesson; it’s all about the feels. It might be push-button emotionalism; but it would be a very jaded and very cynical sort person who could emerge unaffected by the sheer wave of sentiment in which the film unabashedly immerses us. Too many of us haven’t felt that way about our country for a long time. 

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