09/18/2015

Pulp-free fiction

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Heneral Luna, the movie that’s got everybody talking, has officially given Philippine history its sexy back.


John Arcilla as Heneral Antonio Luna

Time and time again, Facebook feeds have offered muddled arguments often including the words “Relax, man. It’s just satire.” Whether we can blame the anonymity of the Internet for making sarcasm such a dangerous weapon — or the density of a few “special snowflakes” here and there — is still up for debate. What is obvious, however, is that people are awfully sensitive about the truth. It seems obvious that no one likes getting lied to (with the exception of getting a new Power Ranger from Santa), but fiction mixed with fact raises a few interesting points.

Few local movies play as loose (and as playfully) with the facts as Heneral Luna. Much like its main character, General Antonio Luna, the film enters the historical fray without a care in the world. Like a warning on a pack of cigarettes, the movie opens with a very important disclaimer: the film’s story is a mix of factual and fictional accounts.

This isn’t the first movie to do so, of course. Quentin Tarantino skirted the line between fiction and non-fiction with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, albeit in a much more self-indulgent and blatant fetishization of history. A little basic knowledge tells us that there really was a World War II and a naughty fellow named Hitler existed. A little more research and we can easily find the existence of Jewish “death squads” active during the era. It’s hard to believe but a movie with the most uncomfortable apple pie scene also calls out modern war movies as propaganda.

So there is a loophole. When you are talking about larger, abstract concepts like the political climate of the Filipino-American War or the internal struggle of Heneral Luna, the minutiae of details — like who got shot where — begins to seem trivial. The dates, battles and names seem to be mere set pieces. What we do crave, however, is character and story.

Paulo Avelino Gregorio del Pilar

Learning about the character is paramount. It’s what keeps the material from being just a high-budget fan fiction gloss on the truth. And although we would gladly line up to see a Rambo-fied Filipino war hero, we also can’t help but feel wronged when a story strays too far from the truth. It’s a delicate balancing act but it has its uses. Heneral Luna does just that, even as it allows us to get under the skin of Antonio Luna.

The hot blooded, will-of-steel Luna seems an anomaly in Filipino culture. Bullish figures like that are dismissed as mayabang, walang hiya or, as seen literally in the movie, ball-busters. Following the facts of General Luna’s life, it becomes all too easy to dismiss him as just a historical case of horrible boss syndrome. It’s the fiction that lets us fill in the gaps and see him as the real, swearing, sweating, screaming human that he was.

Through a few made-up life events in the movie, we get to explore the man as a man, not a legend. We see a lot more into his motivations. For every “pendejo” uttered and death threat promised, there is a real reason fueling that rage. He’s a chaotic force of good, a typhoon in a uniform. Sure, he threatens to kill people over haircut violations but his real motivation is to discipline the rabble and unite them — not because of an unfathomable hatred of ponytails.

Joem Bascon as Paco Roman

One could even say that Antonio Luna’s portrayal uncannily resembles a modern figure that has been lauded for his balls-to-the-wall, take-no-prisoners school of management. The head honcho of Davao, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, has interestingly enough been discussed in the same way Luna was during his own time. They share sentiments on governance, Filipino culture and getting people’s sh*t together in creatively sadistic ways. They both stand for what Philippine society has been begging for and simultaneously been avoiding: that figurative bullhorn to stop everyone from bickering and act like a unified country for once.

When Luna said that the Filipino’s greatest enemy isn’t the Americans but other Filipinos, half of the audience held their breath in subconscious agreement. It was as if Luna had been stuck in the same EDSA traffic we have all sat in. It’s refreshing for a local movie to be able to pull off social commentary and not use clunky metaphor or a sad violin song over some modern news footage. Fiction mixed with fact gives us that streamlined moral of the story

Sure, it’s the facts that provide us the background, but it’s the fiction that strings it all together. I pray to the gods of good writing to forgive me for this cliché I am about to utter, but fiction is the lens through which we view story. Without the fictional elements, we might as well be dramatically reading textbooks to each other in the dark and that’s hardly worth P220 for a movie ticket. Think of fiction as a painter’s brush: in the right hands masterpieces can be made; in the wrong hands, it looks like a three-year-old threw a fit and ruined all your favorite stuff with no remorse.


Photos from the Heneral Luna Facebook page.

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