Movie Review: ‘Goyo: The Boy General’ is Profound and Relevant

“Goyo, the Boy General” (Source: TBA Studios)

“Goyo, the Boy General” (Source: TBA Studios)

The cineaste in me had some trepidation about viewing “Goyo,” the new film titled after the nickname of General Gregorio del Pilar, as it comes on the heels of the box office hit “Heneral Luna,” about that irascible General Antonio Luna who, like del Pilar, fought under President Emilio Aguinaldo (played by Mon Confiado) in the Filipino-American War.

Would a successful film dilute the creative juices of director Jerrold Tarog for this next film, about a 23-year-old “boy general” who takes up the military cudgel for the newly formed Philippine republic after Luna’s untimely demise? Would more access now to funding complicate the script, make it more nuanced, erratic, and an ego stroke for the director and producers?

Well, as I return from the movie premier, with a notebook filled with scribbles, I confess to being quite taken by the depth of this cinematic experience. “Goyo” is a study in historical profundity, its dialogue bordering on poetry, its cinematography of verdant mountains choking the heart, its actors deftly approximating the heroes and villains we study and revere. Director Tarog, the producers, the cast, and the crew outdid themselves.

The movie cuts to the chase in the very beginning. Luna has just been butchered by Aguinaldo’s soldiers; it’s interesting that this movie lays Luna’s death squarely on Aguinaldo’s lap, the last one having pussyfooted on the issue. There’s a massive roundup of soldiers under Luna’s command, including a high-ranking officer, Col. Manuel Bernal (Art Acuña), who refuses to change his allegiance. For that he is tortured under the unfeeling eyes of Gen. del Pilar (Paulo Avelino) but still manages to throw insults at del Pilar, accusing him of following whatever Aguinaldo commands. He yells hauntingly at del Pilar, that he is, in effect, “not a soldier but a dog.” As del Pilar leaves the cell, the bloodied Bernal, at the point of snapping, yaps like a loyal dog with a humiliating bark, which would stick with the boy general and haunt him.

General Gregorio del Pilar, from Our Islands and Their People, 1899. (Source: Ortigas Library Collection)

General Gregorio del Pilar, from Our Islands and Their People, 1899. (Source: Ortigas Library Collection)

In 1899, less than six months after the start of the war, Aguinaldo’s forces suffer setbacks and flee to the north, to Dagupan in Pangasinan. They are there for five months, a respite that allows the film to show a more developed profile of del Pilar, who it turns out is a sly flirt and a ladies’ man who broke many hearts in the towns they retreated to, as evidenced in the many pained letters from the ladies.

Del Pilar as national lothario makes his real-life boy-next-door image a lot sexier, with the local lasses in their voluminous trailing ternos fanning nervously, in near faint, with very apparent repressed desires. Casual sex hadn’t been introduced in those days (or so we think).

There is one young lady that takes del Pilar’s fancy. She’s Remedios Jose (Gwen Zamora), the daughter of a town politico, and their first encounter is a study in 19th century Victorian courtship. As was the manner in those days, she communicates with her eyes, aptly described in 19th-century literature as “mapungay na mata” (dreamy eyes).

With slightly stifled breaths they are disarmed by one another but must keep a pretense of nonchalance. Later, over dinner, he breaks the staring duel across the table and apologizes for the rude behavior he displayed earlier. She politely says, to paraphrase, that she can handle any situation. Her father cheerily chimes in about having a strong daughter, and this is Goyo’s first warning. She’s gorgeous, but there’s going to be some serious hoops to be gone through before she is “conquered.” Goyo, probably used to fainting violets, has met his imperturbable match.

Months into the courtship, Remedios does not let up. In her self-possessed way, she probes his past and wonders whether she’ll be conquest number 101. In a romantic and sensual court dance in the family house, as they slowly sway, hold hands, uncouple, approach, take in each other’s cologne and sweat tinged with yearning, she continues with her sweet and earnest inquisition. She not only chides him for being a potential heartbreaker who may also possess heroic delusions that will get in the way of her just wanting a man for keeps, at her side.

This period movie has parallels with today’s troubling events.

Del Pilar pledges fealty while Remedios must now deal with one of his exes, Felicidad Aguinaldo (Empress Schuck) who, in a market scene with Remedios, does a tit-for-tat with sharpened verbal claws. Remedios notes that many of the overripe mangoes may have to be disposed. Felicidad snidely suggests that Remedios could be one of them, warning her of Goyo’s record of dispensing with many other “mangoes.”

Oooh, this scriptwriter has an ax to grind. But Remedios is unfazed. She responds gently back, eyebrows raised: how could Felicidad ever think such, since she’s not a mango. Touche! Three snaps.

With Goyo’s peccadillos revealed and accepted as the masculine norm, we return to the crucial Philippine-American war.

Apolinario Mabini (Epi Quizon), prominent in “Heneral Luna,” continues his cryptic pronouncements on the state of the nation. He has left the Aguinaldo cabinet soon after Luna’s death and is to the left of Aguinaldo’s growing pro-American cabal. He has some profound, hurtful lines about his countrymen (still fitting for today’s Congress). He calls Aguinaldo’s people a bunch of clowns. And given the behavior of a populace with a propensity for a good time over serious affairs, Mabini declares not once but twice that Filipinos deserve to be called children. “Ouch,” but on target perhaps, until we get our act together.

Mabini has grown since the last movie, where he was at the early stage of the Aguinaldo cabinet and very confident of its independent direction. Now, that seems unlikely. When eventually, Aguinaldo pays him a call, goads him to return, and offers him the position of chief justice, Mabini accepts with a heavy heart, uttering that his acceptance is only for the country’s sake.

Meanwhile, Goyo has flashbacks of a bloodied Col. Bernal yapping and tormenting him, literally dying of laughter. One night, in a drunken stupor in a river he thinks blood is coming out of his mouth, that his life is over under the water. We witness a premonition of his death and possibly, the folly of his allegiance to Aguinaldo.

These intermittent nightmares are exacerbated by news of the Americans in Manila playing hardball, pushing the Filipino soldiers further away from laying siege on the Spaniards in Manila. In a meeting between Aguinaldo’s emissary, General Alejandrino (Alvin Anson) and American Generals Elwell Otis (Edward Rocha) and Arthur MacArthur (Miguel Faustmann), the Americans have only the mindset that the Filipinos have a rogue president, insinuating their army is illegitimate and the fledgling republic a sham to be vanquished.

The American forces head north to put to rout the remaining Filipino forces and capture Aguinaldo. It is a demoralizing spectacle, a long trail of soldiers and civilians, on foot, reaching towns friendly or otherwise, scrounging for food, moving northward and arduously ascending the Cordillera Mountains.

The sacrifices and misery inflicted on citizens are visually articulated in this movie, with extras in the hundreds if not thousands, multiplied ably by digital effects. As a photo-historian, I find several instances in the movie where a scene replicates a pose historically imprinted as a photograph, quite moving. Gen. del Pilar poses proudly, leaning on his sword. In another, he us seen in full military regalia astride his favorite white horse and flanked by his men. Later stilled and embedded in an albumen print, the scene’s authenticity galvanizes in the viewers. Del Pilar was a real historical figure, the army he commanded was real, and their earnestness in their love for country was as well.

In the mountains, Aguinaldo moves ahead to elude capture, ordering Gen. del Pilar and 60 men to be the rear guard on a mountainous pass called Tirad. Despite their ideal vantage point, the Filipinos are outmanned, and sharpshooters of the 33rd Volunteer Infantry manage to take deadly aim even from below at the Filipinos up on the ridge.

This last fighting scene is excruciating, and as every Filipino soldier falls dead, the enchanting Cordillera mountains seemingly undulate in gratitude and sadness. The sharpshooters reach the top, and Gen. del Pilar, the last to retreat, is eventually shot dead, and his whole body stripped of his possessions and clothing. The Americans recognize the young general’s bravery and scramble for mementoes of him.

Aside from the exquisite needle-point handkerchief given to him by Remedios, the soldiers took from his bag his diary with a last entry the day before. There are several varying accounts of this diary entry, but I rely on Marcial Lichauco’s American Conquest of The Philippines, which cites the war correspondent Richard Henry Little’s transcript of Gen. del Pilar’s diary.

It reads, “The general (Aguinaldo) had given me the pick of the men that could be spared and ordered me to defend the pass. I realize what a terrible task is given to me. And yet I feel that this is the most glorious moment of my life. What I do is done for my beloved country. No sacrifice can be too great.”

This period movie has parallels with today’s troubling events. The American forces, the ascending imperial power then, went land-grabbing and eventually took over the land. Today’s new Chinese imperial power, is starting with some of our islands, and our breath is bated as to what’s next.

Unquestioning loyalties to strongmen like Aguinaldo resulted in numerous failures and even needless deaths. There seems to be a parallel with that and today’s strongman Duterte.

Mabini inflicts the unkindest cut of all, declaring us as unfit children not to be trusted. Are we still that today, lacking political maturity and incapable of making our country a good place for all to live? The movie is powerful and blends the right amount of romance and levity in a serious historical narrative. It will require thinking caps for all who want to see the best of outcomes for our country. “Goyo” soberly points us in the right direction.

NEW VENUE: GOYO:  THE BOY GENERAL, the year's most anticipated and acclaimed Philippine film, from the director and producers of HENERAL LUNA, opens in the US on Friday, September 21, at the following theaters: 

AMC Loews Kips Bay 15
570 2nd Avenue (between 31st and 32nd Streets)
New York, NY 10016

AMC Loews Jersey Gardens 20
651 Kapkowski Road
Elizabeth, New Jersey 07201

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John L. Silva is executive director of the Ortigas Library, a research library in Manila.