Sunday, January 1, 2012

MANILA KINGPIN: The Untold Story of ASIONG SALONGA (2011) Review

While I originally planned to go to SM alone and pick up some last-minute grocery, I ended up spending Rizal day watching the latest Asiong Salonga movie with my family. Having heard a number of good things about it, I probably would have watched it on my own if they didn’t want to, it's a testament to how intrigued I am about this movie.

It's been a while since I’ve watched a Filipino action movie (not counting the old films I see during bus rides). Filipino movies these days tend to tilt towards romantic comedies, love stories or horror genres and it was refreshing to finally see some good old action. You may have gotten tired of the formulaic storylines, overused tropes or the gaping plot holes that frequent action films, more obviously blatant during their decline, but I think some of those movies were fun to watch.

When I first saw the trailer for this movie I found myself smiling. I remember even posting the trailer on my FB wall. Maybe part of its appeal is the nostalgia that it brought, since most of us have watched a few Filipino action films back when we were kids. (Remember the hype that people had when GMA brought back Voltes V? You’d think it was the best anime series of all time). The trailer also showed some actors who used to be in action movies and brought back from retirement like John Regala, Roi Vinzon, Dennis Padilla and of course Jeorge Estregan Jr, among others. Years inactive have made them plump, but as they say, real men have no abs (true story!).

However, the trailer also seemed to take itself too seriously that it was funny to me. I mean, for one thing, the balisong forging was done so flashy you would have thought they were forging Aragorn's sword or maybe the One Ring itself. And while the kalesa chase can be gutsy or maangas, it was also ridiculous when you think about it (I mean, are those horses bulletproof?). I haven’t watch any of the other three Asiong Salonga movies (1961, 1977, 1990) but this movie did seem to imitate a mafia atmosphere, with the pervasiveness of the tommy gun, the suits, the fedoras and all that territorial talk. I don’t know what they had back then in the 50’s but even if it’s not accurate, I think I can forgive it.

The movie is almost two hours long, and all of it was in black and white. It might take some getting used to for others, but since I have watched some old films for a time, it was not too much of an adjustment for me.  The movie was a good period piece, the director and the production staff took pains to make the atmosphere look the same as it did in the 1950’s. All the locations, the props, the fashion and style will make you believe that you are living in that era. It made the movie rich in history and feelings of nostalgia. The score is good as well, although I think the Tears for Fears’ Mad World instrumental at the end was not a good choice. I think the sound is too familiar that a lot of people would recognize it for a foreign song, and therefore find it out of place in a Filipino movie. There were some good scenes in the movie, the attack on Viray was executed well, showing the gang's teamwork and guts. The scene where they punished the traitor in their midst was violent but felt fitting. You can feel some of the tension during confrontations because the story and  the actors' portrayals have made you sympathize with Asiong and his gang.

Although the movie was one of the best Filipino action films I have watched, I felt that the movie was disjointed in some of the parts. Maybe because it was trying to tell a lot of things and did not have enough time, being already as long as it is. Some scenes were confusing because there was no indication of how much time has passed between them. Maybe some indication of date could have helped make the story more coherent. It also felt as if things were taken out of the final cut, some scenes were not related to the ones that follow after. Who was Jay Manalo, and why was he so influential inside the prison? And during an earlier scene, Asiong was skeptical of the Liberal party but in the next scenes he was like a hardcore Liberal.

I felt the bed scenes were awkward, maybe because I felt that Estregan was too old for the role and the women were old enough to be his daughters, but overall I think he did the character justice. There was a scene though where I can’t tell from his expression whether he was scared or trying to look menacing and in a scene when he was holding the tommy gun by the bed it looked as if he did not know what to do with it and it made me wince watching him. Geisler and Regala were noteworthy in their roles and it was no surprise when they were nominated for the supporting actor awards.

I think that the title Manila Kingpin is a misnomer for Asiong Salonga, since Manila is a large place and the movie did not show him controlling the whole area. The antagonist Totoy Golem (Regala) is more of a kingpin than Salonga (Estregan) since Golem appears to be the leader of the other gangs as well. At most, Salonga could be called the King of Tondo, since it was his turf and no one can touch it while he was around.

The action sequences are engaging but some of it felt impractical. Although the rain scene at the church had good effects, the slow motion Max Payne scene felt as cheesy as the kalesa chase I mentioned earlier. There was also a scene where Asiong and his gang attacked an enemy’s hideout but only Asiong went in and killed everyone inside. I also felt that some scenes in the movie were unnecessary while I found other scenes lacking in telling the Asiong Salonga story. I thought it would be about how he rose from ranks starting from when he was young, but how he gained control of Tondo was just told in the first scene. The confrontation at the end felt forced and impractical because there seemed to be no apparent gain and motivation for those who initiated it. There was also an absurd scene at the end with a bicycle that made the audience laugh when it was supposed to be sad and serious. Riding a bike while holding a gun does look ridiculous when done in live action.

Despite its flaws, I still think Manila Kingpin is one of the best Filipino action movies that I’ve seen. Maybe the story wasn’t that polished and some scenes were absurd, if not awkward, but the movie has more substance to it than other movies I have watched. I wonder if the director’s original version would've have better, maybe we'll never know. I’m not sure how much this movie will earn but I do hope that more people would see this movie, if only to encourage these types of films. Maybe the action genre will make a comeback in Filipino movies. Maybe the next movies will improve and be even better, I don’t know. But if it does, Manila Kingpin is a good start.

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