Demystifying the Heneral Luna Phenomenon – A Movie Review

I woke up to a most singular occurrence, Tuesday last week. Heneral Luna, an indie historical film which had opened quietly the week before, had begun trending in Twitter at 4 a.m. Like the brash and vitriolic general of the same name, it had refused to fade calmly into obscurity and continued to pop in and out of the trending list in succeeding days.

People have suddenly and inexplicably fallen in love, so much so, that when cinemas dropped from 100 to 48 after the first week of screening, public clamor managed to push the cinema count up to 104.

What is it about Heneral Luna that has so captured the hearts of so many?

Birth of a Renegade

Its popularity is even more surprising considering it doesn’t feature the excesses of Hollywood, the inanity of slapstick comedy, or the endless gush of maudlin mistress woes. What it does show is a Filipino historical and cultural experience told boldly but conscientiously, that is, with more than the usual degree of attention paid to the essentials and the eseential peripherals. From the sweeping vistas of verdant land, down to the smallest detail on uniform buttons, everything is laid out with almost reverent care.

And it isn’t an elitist snob. Those harping about narrative flow, nuance, gravity and focus must understand that a perfect film is pointless if it does not reach an audience. Heneral Luna, already at a disadvantage because of its traditionally unpopular genre, has chosen a tone, voice and approach more suited to communicate.

Perhaps the film’s greatest asset in its attempt to engage its audience is what may once have been its biggest risk, its cast. In this respect, there is a refusal to compromise, shunning the effective tactic of foisting ill-fitting roles onto teen idols for salability. The end result for Heneral Luna is a group of seasoned actors well adapted to their roles.

John Arcilla is luminous as Luna and manages to lift us through his mounting wave of just rage. Luna’s boys are the necessary foil to his fire. Anson, Bascon, Alemania, Medina and Acuna emanate an endearing spunk that sit well alongside Arcilla’s fervor.

What of the parallel camp? Mon Confiado makes for a beautifully subdued Aguinaldo while Noni Buencamino’s Buencamino simmers with an inner ardor almost equal to Luna’s. I liked best of all however, Epy Quizon’s Mabini, who is just as I imagined him to be, as if the statesman himself decided to quit the ten peso coin to appear in a film.

Hitting Home

It is too simple to attribute the growing love for the film to its production and cast alone. There are countless other Filipino films that are exemplary in these elements. Why Heneral Luna and why now? The answer is simple, because it is relatable and opportune.

Heneral Luna mirrors in a very clear and sharp tone, the Filipino experience now. It shoves us roughly into the realization that more than a hundred years after Luna’s death, we have not changed. We, by our own divisiveness, indecision and selfishness remain the greatest saboteurs of our own progress. It is inevitable then that as Luna vituperates on screen against the causes of his frustration, we who have grown tired of struggling, feel a simultaneous inner rage boil within us against ourselves and against a cultural system that perpetuates internal strife.

It is fortunate that the filmmakers have chosen Luna as their messenger, a hero so flawed he’s almost like the rest of us. Indeed, the treatment is nearly iconoclastic, but therapeutic. For the first time on film, a hero is taken down from his sanitized moral pedestal and is humanized, so that now, those of us who are on the streets find it easier to learn what he has to teach.

The audience clapped when the credits rolled at the cinema where I watched Heneral Luna . It would be reasonable to say therefore, that whatever its foibles, it had achieved what it had set out to do, more so because the audience weren’t Tagalogs, Ilocanos or Cavitenos. They were a mix of Bisaya and Muslim Filipinos. Even as I imagine the General shouting invectives in the afterlife over our prevailing fractured state, he would have roared approvingly at the ovation, taking it to mean that we have progressed, albeit incrementally, beyond the short-sightedness of regionalism and self-absorption.

Beyond Heneral Luna

One inescapable consequence of the film is a sudden tide of revulsion for Aguinaldo. This is unfortunate considering that the director has been emphatic about there being no villains, only people with different motivations. The more astute observer will also notice that in the scene where the letter that was to seal Luna’s fate was dispatched, the hand that approved it was not clearly shown to be Aguinaldo’s. Historically, there is no direct evidence to implicate Aguinaldo in Luna’s assassination, but could he have prevented it? That is left to the viewers to decide.

If the movie has taught us anything about people, it is that no one is entirely black or white; we all contain varying degrees of good and bad. Published accounts will tell us that Aguinaldo had his shining moments as a general in the revolution against Spain, but he may have stepped on some gray areas later on in his political career. The only fair way to form an opinion about him and his contemporaries including Luna is to read… MORE! And be critical and analytical.

It isn’t enough that you take the word of one or two historians about the events that unraveled more than a hundred years ago. Because it is the nature of humans to be multi-faceted, and because humans are the creators of history, the past can hardly ever be written in stone, and historians will always agree to disagree with the frequency of Pacific typhoons about the truth. We must read and make up our own minds about our heroes and our story.

But why is it even important to arrive at our own conclusions? Because it is only when we’ve come to terms with our collective past can we learn from its lessons.

And because we can’t get enough of the movie…

Heneral Luna Trivia

  • Luna was a musician, sportsman, chemist, pharmacist, doctorate degree holder and tactician.
  • The movie’s director, Jerrold Tarog is also its co-writer, editor and musical composer.
  • It took producers 19 years to bring their concept into a movie.
  • The writers agreed there would be no villains, only people with motivations.
  • Producer E.A. Rocha’s grandparents knew the Luna brothers.
  • The docked ships and other background extensions in the movie were CGI.
  • Pong Ignacio, the director of photography, took inspiration from Juan Luna’s paintings in depicting the movie’s color, light and shadow.
  • The Katipunan and succeeding military units were semi-feudal.
  • According to Carmen Reyes, the movie’s make-up artist, General Masacardo’s sparse mustache was symbolic and done on purpose and in contrast to Luna’s full mustache.
  • Mon Confiado had his hair cut in Aguinaldo’s characteristic flat top in Cavite and appeared in auditions wearing a full white suit to show he fit the role.
  • Noni Beuncamino is related to the character that he played, Felipe Buencamino.
  • The scene where Antonio Luna and Paco Roman’s bodies are dragged are a pointed reference to Juan Luna’s Spoliarium.

Heneral Luna Quotable Quotes


“Meron tayong mas malaking kaaway kaysa mga Amerikano; ang ating sarili.”
-Luna to Aguinaldo’s cabinet

“Negosyo o kalayaan? Bayan o sarili? Mamili ka.”
-Luna to Aguinaldo’s cabinet

“Nasubukan mo na bang hulihin ang hangin?”
-Mabini to Aguinaldo

“Mas madali pang pagkasunduin ang langit at lupa kaysa dalawang Pilipino sa alin mang bagay.”
-Luna to Joven

“Kailangan nilang tumalon sa kawalan.”
-Luna to Joven

“Ang taong may damdamin ay hindi alipin.”
-Luna monologue

“Para kayong mga birheng naniniwala sa pag-ibig ng isang puta.”
-Luna to Aguinaldo’s cabinet

“Paano ako lalaban? Kakagatin ko sila?”
-Luna to Aguinaldo’s cabinet

“Ganito ba talaga ang tadhana natin? Kalaban ang kalaban. Kalaban ang kakampi. Nakakapagod.”
-Luna to Roman

Recommended Resources

  1. The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna, D. Vivencio R. Jose
  2. A Question of Heroes, Nick Joaquin
  3. ALL of Ambeth Ocampo’s books
  4. Heneral Luna: The History Behind the Movie (monograph)
  5. Xiao Chua’s videos on YouTube


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One Response to Demystifying the Heneral Luna Phenomenon – A Movie Review

  1. I can say nothing else but congratulate you in your writing a very informative and lively article. Hope to meet and talk to you in person in the future. 🙂

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