Kingpin down

I don't usually write film reviews here - they always go on my still mostly active Multiply page - but I have to write something about Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story.

There's always one relatively artsy film when the Metro Manila Film Festival rolls by - one that looks different from all of the other, more unabashedly mainstream releases. This year, it's Jeorge Estregan's retelling of the story of the 1950s gangster, whose story has been immortalized as early as the 1960s. It's an action flick. It's shot completely in black and white. It's a period piece. Never mind the issue about director Tikoy Aguiluz wanting his name off the credits because of certain scenes added without his permission. (He got his request, by the way.) Never mind the fact that this might be Estregan's way of putting his name back into public consciousness, perhaps in preparation for the upcoming elections. (He is governor of Laguna, after all.) The film's got to work, right? Somehow?

Well, it doesn't. It's crap.

To be fair, they had good intentions. Mounting a film that's not exactly mainstream (despite the cast) and not exactly on the fringes (despite the look) in the one date on the Philippine film calendar that's very family-friendly (and that's a euphemism) is a challenge, and they should be applauded for that. There are some good things with the film: Carlo Mendoza's cinematography is thoughtful for the most part, and while the partly-random cast is too old to play young gangsters (the real Salonga died when he was 28) they give the gravitas their roles ask for, especially John Regala and Dennis Padilla. But while watching the two-hour-long flick, I can't help but be totally thrown off. Manila Kingpin is quite messy.

One, the film begins in the middle of the action. We have Asiong being tortured by some other gangster. The usual territory war. We have Asiong exacting his revenge. We have Totoy Golem hearing about the aforementioned attack. Suddenly all of this is happening, and I'm wondering, so what happened before all this? The assumption is, you've seen the Asiong Salonga movies from before (notably the one featuring Joseph Estrada) and you know what happens. My dad knows, as he's seen them. I haven't. There's no inkling of an origin scene, and there are no transitions to certain chapters. It's event after event - either they crammed too much, or they spent too much time showing Asiong Salonga is a Robin Hood type of guy. (ER Ejercito is a Robin Hood type of guy.) It feels clunky at times.

Two, you cannot turn the provincial town of Pagsanjan (in Laguna - but of course!) to the urban district of Tondo. The black-and-white style eases you through this obvious disparity, but you'd expect a film set in Manila's underbelly in the 1950s to look gritty and tight. We get a cinema that's obviously fashioned from an ancestral home, a church that's not in the middle of the market district, and wide spaces that you will never find in that part of Manila at the time. And banana trees. Lots of banana trees. I actually gave up believing it's Manila and decided that I was watching a film student's thesis where location is a bit of an afterthought.

Three, certain facets of the film feel forced in. Asiong's dalliances with the ladies - where did that come from? Sure, it's a given - he is a gangster, a notorious gangster - but I still don't get it. I don't even know what he feels about his wife Fidela (played by Carla Abellana, making the whole idea creepy) and now he's taking off Jaycee Parker's top? The idea of someone from the Liberal Party asking for Asiong's support - do we really need politics in the picture? Even my dad said it was nowhere in the originals. (Is ER running under Noynoy? Nice way of making it that explicit, sir.) The idea of corrupt policemen and corrupt government officials - it's a given, but how does that exactly figure? I can imagine how the production meetings go: "Aha, let's make the police corrupt! They'll understand." I don't even know what the motivations are - things just happen.

Four, every sharp cuss word was cancelled. Phillip Salvador went "putang ina". John Regala went "putang ina". But you'll have to read their lips to know that. It loses the grit the film requires. So much for the R-13 rating.

Finally, the last straw: the scene where Totoy Golem hijacks Asiong Salonga's funeral - and forced a gunfight between his gang and Asiong's - is soundtracked by an orchestral version of Tears for Fears' Mad World. It's 1950s Manila. Where the hell did that effing come from?

Manila Kingpin is more style than substance. They definitely sold the aesthetic, and the fact that it's a period piece, when they could've tightened up the storytelling - focus on one aspect of Asiong's story, like the recent Robin Hood remake with Russell Crowe - and paid more attention to the production. I thought they were perhaps better off creating a whole new story, about a gangster from Pagsanjan who fought corrupt officials and their cohorts. the enemy gang. I would have bought that.

Instead, what we get is a film where the crew decided to throw everything they know to the wall and see what sticks. Some things look good, but everything doesn't make sense together. Like a film student's thesis, really. You get excited trying out all the techniques you learned, the end result looks messy.

Oh, right, Manila Kingpin is a vanity project. Jeorge Estregan shooting guns, fighting for the common good, and making out with Valerie Concepcion on the side. I tried watching the film as just that. A vanity project. And it still fails. I can't quite convince myself that Jeorge still has it. He screams to the heavens after fighting off Ronnie Lazaro's character - those big epiphany moments - and he looks limp. He kisses the young girls (lots of them) and he looks more excited. Not exactly the message you want if you're running for some government position, if that theory is true.

Funny that the film that we assumed would be a bright spot in this year's MMFF turns out to be such a disappointment. Enteng ng Ina Mo actually could be better, even if their merger is very, very forced.

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