‘Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral’ review: Deconstruction of a glorified hero

Jerrold Tarog’s ‘Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral‘ works better as an ensemble piece than a character study. Still, its a marvelous technical achievement.

The 2015 sleeper hit Heneral Luna stupefied us with an image of a burning Philippine flag and General Antonio Luna’s impassioned voice, “Bayan o sarili? Pumili ka!” It’s a rhetoric posed to the modern Filipino: will his sacrifice to fight for our nation’s freedom be in vain? The Philippine-American war is just a distant memory from the past but this film calls to arms in making a positive impact for our country today. It’s truly a life-changing event in the local cinema.

Heneral Luna can take pride on this achievement as a stand-alone biopic film but Goyo has the daunting pressure to outperform its predecessor – to present another biopic of a more known and beloved hero, and act as a connective tissue to a planned trilogy. It stays true to its roots as Luna’s ghost looms over, his name and his ideals are referred to, especially when the film illustrates the Filipinos’ tendency to worship idols and personalities.

But Goyo is not exactly a torchbearer to Heneral Luna’s fiery nationalism and resilience. The first film ignites a spark and from there, we expect a full-blown fire. Instead, this sequel throws a curveball to viewer expectations and dampens the fire with doubt. It’s a step back to challenge one’s existing ideals.

Gwen Zamora and Paolo Avelino in ‘Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral.’ Photo via TBA Studios.

Goyo picks up days after Luna’s (John Arcilla) gruesome assassination in the hands of his fellow countrymen. It’s an act of treason coyly implied to be orchestrated by President Emilio Aguinaldo (Mon Confiado). With the fighting ceased, Aguinaldo and his constituents in uncolonized Philippine regions are experiencing prolonged months of false peace, clearly unsuspecting of the Americans’ next move.

Meanwhile, one of Aguinaldo’s favorite generals, Gregorio “Goyo” Del Pilar (Paulo Avelino) has his head stuck in the clouds. He spends his time relishing his fast promotion by enjoying fiestas thrown in his honor, fooling around with his friends and chasing the affections of a beautiful maiden Remedios (Gwen Zamora). Goyo rips the textbook glorification right away and presents the titular hero as a flawed being – a PTSD-stricken soldier who doubts his leadership and principles, a reckless young lad who is torn between love and duty.

Goyo is being pulled to different directions. His brother Julian (Rafa Siguion-Reyna) feeds his ego, “Tandaan mo kung sino ka. Ikaw ang agila. Bayaning Bulakenyo. Dugong Magiting.” But what do those titles really mean to him? It’s only until he interrogates Luna’s supporter, Manuel Bernal (Art Acuña) that he realizes that he might not be a protagonist in most people’s story after all, but a henchman to Aguinaldo instead. Bernal taunts him, “Ang kaibahan natin, ikaw, naniniwala sa idolo. Kaming mga namatay at papatayin, naniniwala sa prinsipyo. Hindi ka sundalo, Goyo, isa kang aso.” Apart from this existential crisis, he is also troubled by ominous visions of his death, making him more hesitant in embracing a doomed, heroic path.

The film is driven by internal turmoil rather than the first film’s brash, strongman rule. Hence, Goyo pales in comparison with Luna, a character whose vulgar attitude alone can be a source of humor in itself. Still, this film has its distinct tone and plenty of philosophical truths to chew on, making it worthy of a second viewing. Where Heneral Luna says, “Ang taong may damdamin ay hindi alipin,” Goyo counters it with a different philosophy: “Tayo’y alipin ng sarili nating mga damdamin.”

Alvin Anson and Epy Quizon in ‘Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral.’ Photo via TBA Studios.

History can’t be contained in a single narrative so director Jerrold Tarog chooses to present this sequel as an ensemble piece – it’s actually more satisfying if viewed under such lenses. Apart from Goyo, the POV constantly shifts among the supporting cast. In General Jose Alejandrino (Alvin Anson), we take a peek on the status of the Philippine Republic’s diplomatic negotiations with the Americans. In Joven Hernando (Arron Villaflor), the viewer’s frustration of the socio-political climate is put into light. As the fictional character in the franchise, he is mostly used as a plot device to efficiently narrate the situation of Goyo and his troops. The character still lacks pay off but hopefully he will come full circle in the next chapter.

The film also thrives in its small moments like when Remedios and Goyo’s ex-lover, Felicidad (Empress Schuck) throw shades at each other during a mango picking contest. On a different note, even the short film Angelito (which can be watched for free online), gives us a perspective of a small player caught in the crossfire, how life is cheap in the service of a greater cause.

It is Apolinario Mabini (Epy Quizon) who forms the narrative’s spine. Known as the ‘brain of revolution,’ he’s the all-seeing eye that delivers the juiciest tirades against Aguinaldo’s administration and the Filipino leadership in general. (Here I am, lowkey wishing that a spin-off film will be dedicated to him as well.) What is lacking is Aguinaldo’s sentiments, as his actions are mostly told in someone else’s perspective so he’s presented as a one-dimensional villain who values unwavering loyalty over true leadership. I’m hoping his rationale will be explained in the next film.

Mon Confiado and Paolo Avelino in ‘Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral.’ Photo via TBA Studios.

As an epic historical war film, Goyo juggles with many characters and their respective threads that it’s marvelous how Tarog keeps them intact within his singular vision. Seamless editing, poignant musical scoring, poetic screenplay (co-written with Rody Vera) and meticulous direction – it’s a masterclass at work. His horror background even comes into play during Goyo’s nightmarish dream sequences. Apart from Tarog’s valiant efforts, the actors’ performances are all good and reliable, the crew’s splendid production design has perfect attention to detail and Pong Ignacio’s breathtaking cinematography deftly plays with light and shadow. This film clearly has the style to match up its substance.

It all culminates in the battle of Tirad Pass. There’s no typical Hollywood stamp to it. The sequence takes time in plotting its tactics and the gunfire is kept at a reasonable amount. As it takes an anticlimactic turn in the end, viewers are served with a disappointing revelation – what was regarded as one of the monumental fights in history falls short due to inexperienced soldiers and disorganized ruling.

The Battle of Tirad Pass in ‘Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral.’ Photo via TBA Studios.

I have to admit that there’s an initial dissatisfaction after my first viewing because I came into the film wanting to be roused like how the first film did. Goyo might disappoint because its short on giving its flawed hero a redemption. His emotional journey is mainly reliant on his relationship with Remedios, and despite spending a significant time in it, the resulting love connection never went beyond physical attraction. For a coming-of-age story, this will have more impact if his relationship with a parental/model figure like Aguinaldo is fleshed out even more.

Goyo plummets to hopelessness, exposing everything that went wrong in the revolution. Mabini caps it off with a powerful monologue on the immaturity of Filipinos, a musing that transcends to the present situation where leaders are driven by their self-interests and majority of the people are content at being complacent.

Where Heneral Luna takes away our freedom, Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral strips away what’s left with our dignity and we are once again left to pick up the pieces. This sequel puts the franchise into a clearer direction. With the first two films both in the dark phase of history, I’m thrilled for the redemption that’s about to come.

4 out of 5 stars

Directed by Jerrold Tarog, screenplay by Jerrold Tarog and Rody Vera
Cast: Paulo Avelino, Mon Confiado, Epy Quizon, Benjamin Alves, Leo Martinez, Alvin Anson, Art Acuña, Carlo Aquino, Rafael Siguion-Reyna, Christopher Aronson, RK Bagatsing, Perla Bautista, Nonie Buencamino, Roeder Camañag, Carlo Cruz, Jason Dewey, Miguel Faustmann, Bret Jackson, Ethan Salvador, Ronnie Lazaro, Jojit Lorenzo, Lorenz Martinez, Karl Medina, Che Ramos, E. A. Rocha, Tomas Santos, Empress Schuck, Robert Seña, Stephanie Sol, Markki Stroem, Arron Villaflor, and Gwen Zamora.
Run time: 200 minutes

MOVIE REVIEW: Unlucky Plaza (2016)

“Unlucky Plaza” Review
Written and Directed by Ken Kwek

In Unlucky Plaza, debt-ridden restaurateur Onassis Hernandez (Jeffrey Quizon) struggles with his finances after a salmonella scandal caused by a disgruntled cook ruined his once prominent Filipino restaurant’s reputation. With eviction from his apartment as an added burden, and with no assistance from his estranged wife, he decides to take his chances when a sultry woman named Michelle (Judee Tan) offers him her flat at a discounted price–given that he’ll pay six months in advance.

Realizing he was scammed, he makes a desperate attempt at getting his money back by taking Michelle, his con-artist husband Sky/Terence (Adrian Pang), her pastor Tong Wen (Shane Mardjuki) and gangster Baby Bear (Liang Guo) hostage. He then proceeds on recording the whole event and sharing it on social media, trying to explain to the world that he wasn’t and never was a villain, but a victim of his situation: a victim of the people currently under the mercy of his gargantuan cleaver.

Writer-director Ken Kwek dreamed up the script during a time of conflict between Singaporeans and foreigners (specifically Filipinos) back in his home country. Apparently, what he wanted to portray was that Singaporeans were not as squeaky clean as most people would think, and has flaws just like everybody else. And the city itself, as it is, is mostly ruled by money and the moneyed.

To highlight this fact, he made sure to establish the Singaporean characters in a mostly bad light: a con-man riddled with debt, a wife who seduced her pastor, a pastor who succumbed to worldly desires, and a group of Singaporean men who brutalized Onassis’ employees and vandalized his restaurant. He was very adamant in showing to the world that Singaporeans weren’t wearing halos on their heads, they were just as bad as everyone else.

The film pokes fun on the difference between Singapore and Philippine culture, with very obvious references to the blatant corruption in the Philippines (where you can always pay off the judge if you don’t win a trial), and to how Filipinos romanticize events as if it were a soap opera. If you think about it, it’s really how Filipinos do things, and it’s not something that Singaporeans roll with.

A lot of the humor is extremely racist (and to highlight reality, most of the racist uttering were from Onassis, a Filipino), which is an irony Kwek wanted to point out in Singaporean culture: a culture so diverse and very multi-racial. Some of the humor may be lost to Westerners, but is very apparent not only to Singaporeans and Filipinos, but to Asians in particular.

For a foreign film, it’s also noteworthy to mention how refreshing it is to see a Filipino that, albeit struggling, is actually a boss and a business owner. Onassis has employees of Chinese and Indian (or South Asian, for that matter) descent, which is a portrayal of Filipinos we don’t usually see in foreign films. Most often, Filipinos are characterized as underpaid, overworked peasantry forced to work in a foreign land. In this film, not so much. But Onassis nevertheless is still working on getting citizenship, since he can no longer call the Philippines his home.

Unlucky Plaza is filled to the brim with swearing, violence, a lot of racism, a gratuitous sex scene, and Singaporeans behaving badly, which are the reasons why it’s heavily censored (banned, actually) in Singapore. But for what it’s worth, it’s not as pretentious as most films are nowadays, and tries to be as real as can be even with all the gimmicks loaded into it. If you’re ever wondering why it got banned in the very country that gave it birth, I highly suggest you give it a look-see. It will not disappoint.

Epy Quizon plays Singapore hostage taker in ‘Unlucky Plaza’

“Convincing characters, genuine scenarios and a fun amount of chaos…you can chalk up Unlucky Plaza as an indisputable win,” described Esquire Magazine of this Singaporean crime drama that had its sold-out worldwide premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.  It was subsequently picked as Opening Film for the Singapore International Film Festival, where critics confirmed its immense audience impact, saying that “It is accessible but has something to say. It’s entertaining but has depth as well. This film really packs a punch.”

Unlucky Plaza shows how a Filipino living in affluent Singapore is pushed over the edge after his business crashed down. Onassis Hernandez, played by Epy Quizon, is a single-father who runs an eatery located in Lucky Plaza (a popular mall in the city, especially among low-cost shoppers).  But when a food scandal in the area quickly spread, his business is not spared.  He becomes so hard-up that he can no longer pay the rent, much more provide for his young son’s requests.  When he is further victimized by a financial scam, Onassis takes a desperate move.  He takes a group of people hostage in a designer bungalow and publicizes his demands on YouTube.  His captives include a financial guru (Adrian Pang) and his unhappy wife Michelle (Judee Tan) who has something going on with a pastor named Wen (Shane Mardjuki).  Onassis refers to them as “the real bad guys”, pointing the blame on them for his crime that captures the attention of authorities and international media, and inspired riots all over the city.

Directed by award-winning director and playwright Ken Kwek (The Ballad of Vicki & Jake, a documentary film; I’ll Have The Special, a stage play), Unlucky Plaza “grabs your attention from its teaser of an opening and doesn’t let go until its strange, satisfying finish,” according to Toronto International Film Festival.  The Hollywood Reporter praised it for tackling “myriad linguistic, moral and cultural transgressions previously unseen in Singapore cinema.”  M Magazine Singapore called it “a great movie”, being the kind that “stays with you for a long time.”

Ken Kwek, considered as one of the most controversial filmmakers in Singapore, was named Best Director at the Tehran Jasmine Film Festival.  Esquire Magazine also likened him to Quentin Tarantino, saying that he is “alternative, and uses great actors and awesome nonmainstream music.”

Philippine pride Epy Quizon (Heneral Luna) won the Best Actor award for Unlucky Plaza at the International Film Festival Manhattan.  Ken Kwek was quoted in saying that “Epy is a very intense and talented actor. His acting comes from the gut and very instinctive.”  In an interview by Zaki Jufri from InSing.com, Epy said he knew that “playing this character (would be) a rollercoaster ride of emotions”, and having been involved in “several fistfights”  as a young man helped in his performance.  “I brought that part of me back for the film,” he revealed.

Unlucky Plaza was also shown at the Warsaw Film Festival, where it was nominated for Grand Prix, and at Kolkata International Film Festival, where it got a nomination for NETPAC Award.

Distributed by Viva Films, Unlucky Plaza hits Philippine cinemas on April 20, 2016.