This morning, Russia and China announced a “no limits” strategic partnership against what Reuters summarized as the “malign global influence” of the United States. The reactions of the rest of the world remain to be seen. But if their current public positions are any guide, U.S. policymakers and wonks are likely to be caught flatfooted. How could anyone genuinely think we have historically been anything other than a force for unalloyed good? If only there were some framework we could use to explain why the rest of the globe doesn’t necessarily see ourselves the way we do!
Anyhoo … this week on the podcast we’re crossing the Pacific Rim, to the Philippines—America’s longtime colony and the subject of three chapters of Gangsters of Capitalism—where we’re talking about the 2018 Filipino war epic Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral (The Boy General).
The film is a biopic about Gregorio “Goyo” del Pilar, the youngest and reputedly best looking of the Filipino generals who fought the losing 1899-1902 war against American colonization. It is a sequel to 2015’s Heneral Luna, a surprise box office hit that challenged the conventional wisdom in the Philippines that people there do not like to hear about their past. These movies are fascinating, not only because they portray Americans as villains, but because of their deeper critiques about the response of colonized people.
I visited the Goyo set while I was in the Philippines doing research for Gangsters, and, as those of you who’ve read the book already know, I ended up making a cameo in the film. (That mini-story starts on p. 57, if you haven’t gotten there yet.)
To talk about all of that I’m joined from Metro Manila by film critic Philbert Dy. He shares his perspective on the movie, as well as the state of both cinema and politics in the Philippines. It’s a fascinating conversation and I hope you check it out. Click the play button above or look for it on your favorite podcast app. A transcript will be posted below.
Oh, and if you’re curious about what my five seconds of fame in the Philippines looked like, here’s a still. (I’m the prisoner of war with the red beard in the middle.)
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In book news, the welcome reception of Gangsters of Capitalism continues. I’ve gotten extremely kind reviews from the Washington Post, New Republic, Associated Press, Jacobin, and more. I was on Chris Hayes’ podcast and The Majority Report this week and The Intercept’s Deconstructed before that, as well as spots with Joy Reid on MSNBC, Democracy Now, and a whole bunch of others.
If you missed my guest essay in the New York Times last week, you can read that here.
Also, I was excited to learn yesterday that the book is already headed for a second printing! Thanks to all of you who have bought Gangsters, recommended it to your libraries, etc. If you haven’t yet, please do, now:
Also reading …
Jamelle Bouie on the deep accounting of slavery
Masha Gessen on the ground in Kyiv
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Episode transcript (may contain transcription errors)
Jonathan M. Katz: Is there a hard edged, but with a heart of gold white American Jewish, bald figure that they would need to cast a journalist? I just want to know if my agent should get in touch.
Philbert Dy: Well, we could always use more villains and white people are easy villains in Filipino cinema.
Jonathan M. Katz: Welcome back to The Racket, a podcast and newsletter that you can find at theracket.news. I am Jonathan Katz. Gangsters of Capitalism is officially out in stores. You could buy it and read it right now. It is about America's rise to global power in the early 20th century and the consequences of that era's wars today. It is told through a stunning combination of my on-the-ground reporting, as well as the life of Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, who was a veteran of every war and occupation of that era only to turn around and become an anti-war and anti-imperialist activist. You should get it and tag me @KatzOnEarth on Twitter and Instagram, share your photos of the book in the wild. I've got some more events upcoming for the release, which I'll talk about at the end of this episode. So we here at The Racket are marking the rollout of Gangsters with what we are calling gangsters movie nights, in which I and a special guest talk about a movie that's either featured in the book or touches on one of the book's major places or themes.
So in the first episode, I watched Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay with Spencer Ackerman. After that, we watched 55 Days at Peking, Nicholas Ray's Western about the Boxer rebellion in China with a scholar of the Boxer rebellion, Jeff Wasserstrom.
Today, we are headed to the Philippines. We're watching Goyo: The Boy General, an epic about the Philippine-American War. It was directed by Jerrold Tarog and starred Filipino heartthrob, Paulo Avelino. It is the first non-American film that we're doing. It is the first one that I talk about specifically in the book. And I believe I can confidently say it is going to be the only movie we do during the series in which I personally make an appearance. That is right, I visited the set of Goyo in 2017 while I was doing research for Gangsters and they cast me as an American prisoner of war.
I am on screen for a stunning five seconds. I assume that my Filipino Oscar is in the mail. To talk about it, I've invited my friend Philbert Dy. I met Phil while I was in the Philippines and he actually makes an unnamed cameo in Gangsters as he was the one responsible for getting me on the set of Goyo. He is a professional writer coming to us from Quezon city who is best known for his work in film criticism. He was a writer at large for Esquire Philippines. Phil was an editor for Rogue Magazine. He was also the co-curator of the New Filipino Cinema program at the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts in San Francisco, California. Currently, he is the editor of CREATEPhilippines, a website that covers the rise of the creative industries in the Philippines. Phil, welcome to The Racket.
Philbert Dy: Hey, Jonathan, good morning from the Philippines.
Jonathan: So, okay. So like I said, this movie came out in 2018. It was actually as you know, the sequel to another movie about the Philippine-American war of 1898 to 1902, a surprise hit at the Filipino box office called Heneral Luna. So Phil, could you set up this conversation by briefly taking us through the plot here? What happens at the end? And obviously, just a blanket warning. This is spoiler central. We're just going blow through all the possible spoilers and all these movies, but can you tell us what happened at the end of Heneral Luna and broadly what is going on in Goyo: The Boy General?
Phil: So yeah, Heneral Luna is about the Philippine hero, Antonio Luna, who was, I believe, considered by the American forces as the most competent general that the Philippines had, but the first president of the Republic hated him so he got killed. So that's the end of Heneral Luna after serving valiantly, I guess, and pissing off all the other generals in the Philippine Revolutionary Army. He was assassinated under the orders of the first president of the Republic, Emilio Aguinaldo. This film, Goya, then pretty much picks up where Luna left off with Luna having just died in the fallout of that. But we follow this other general now who was actually in the first movie, Gregorio del Pilar, nicknamed Goyo. He is the youngest general in the Philippine Revolutionary Army, a particular favorite of Emilio Aguinaldo. The first half of the film basically follows him when he's given command over the province of Pangasinan.
And there are five months of a truce between the Philippines and America. And he just hangs out in Pangasinan and flirts with ladies and holds parties and messes around with his friends. And then the second half follows the flight from Pangasinan towards the northern Philippines. He was accompanying the president, Emilio Aguinaldo, as they were being pursued by the American army going all the way up to Tirad Pass where this mountain in Ilocos Sur. And that's where Emilio Aguinaldo was hiding out for a little bit. And then Gregorio del Pilar basically led the defense of the Tirad Pass, where the Philippine army was crushed and then he died.
Jonathan: So it's [laughs] a very exciting, it's a very thrilling ending.
Jonathan: And just so our listeners are going to follow along what's going on here. So broadly speaking, what happens in the history here is that the United States declares war on Spain in 1898, and we declare war on the entire Spanish Empire. So the main focus is on Cuba, but as soon as war is declared, we make sure to sink the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and the Filipinos and the Americans are fighting alongside each other to defeat the Spanish. But as soon as the Spanish are defeated, we, in true American fashion, betray the Filipinos and decide to colonize the islands for ourselves. So Emilio Aguinaldo, who Phil was talking about, is the president of the abortive first Philippine Republic. And essentially the arc of these movies is that it's following two generals in the first movie, Antonio Luna, and then the second movie, Gregorio "Goyo" del Pilar, as basically the Filipinos lose the war on the battlefield. The war doesn't actually end with Tirad Pass.
First of all, it goes on for another year or so. In Gangsters, the action continues to the Visayas, the islands in the center of the Filipino archipelago. There's a horrendous massacre. Well, the first there's a massacre of American troops, and then there's a revenge massacre of Filipinos on the island of Samar and actually, in a lot of ways, this war continues for another decade after that because there's continued fighting, there's a continued insurgency of the Moros, the Muslim Filipinos in the south, on Mindanao and in the Sulu archipelago.
So, Heneral Luna comes out, it's 2015, right?
Jonathan: And so that was a shock, right? That movie was as successful as it was. I guess you've talked a lot about this, but my understanding was that there was an assumption among people in the Filipino movie industry that a movie about history and about specifically the Philippine-American war wouldn't be a success.
Phil: Yeah, that's true. We don't actually get a lot of historical films anyway, because they're very expensive to make. And the industry, while we do have what I would consider a pretty thriving film industry with lots of movies made, we tend not to go above a certain budget just because we're the Philippines, it's a third-world. It's very difficult to make movies. And also it's very hard to get sets for period stuff, because most of the Philippines was bombed during World War II and we just don't have old looking buildings anymore where that would look natural.
And usually we get maybe one historical film every two years by some ambitious director who thinks he has something new to say about history. And also I'm going to say that history isn't taught very well in the Philippines. It doesn't seem to be a priority. There's actually this film by John Gianvito, a documentary about high incidents of cancer and birth defects around the American bases in Pampanga. And he went around talking to people around the bases about their problems. And he asked them, "Did you even know that America and the Philippines went to war?" And they didn't because apparently it wasn't being taught in schools. So there's this assumption that there's just a very low interest in history.
Jonathan: Well, it is definitely true for what you're saying in the Philippines, like American's ignorance of our own history, especially our own history in the Philippines, I think goes even farther beyond that. And I think it would be useful for the people listening to know that as a result of this war, the United States colonizes the Philippines, we hold it as a fully owned colony until the Second World War, which begins with the Japanese invading or trying to invade all of the American colonies in the Pacific, starting obviously with Hawaii bombing Pearl Harbor, but on the same day begins the bombing and then the seizure of the Philippine islands on December 7th and 8th, 1941.
And then it's basically a lot of the war in the Pacific is fought over, trying to get back control of the Philippines. And as Phil said, we end that by just bombing the living shit out of Manila. And with the country in rubble, give the Philippines their long belated independence. But in exchange for that, as we talked about in the previous episode with Guantanamo, the same thing happens in the Philippines. We insist on keeping several bases, including a major Naval base at Subic Bay, which is the Pacific's answer to Guantanamo, at least in terms of its strategic position for the US Navy. But anyway, I just wanted to fill in that long footnote, but go ahead, Phil.
Phil: Yeah, no, it's great to let people know about the history of the US and the Philippines. Whenever I go to the States, there is at least one person surprised that I speak English and I tell them, "Yeah, we were an American colony and we were all taught English." Our curriculum includes English and English is actually considered one of the national languages. This is why if you call up support for almost any company in the US, you might be getting a Filipino call center agent because we all speak English.
Jonathan: Am I wrong? That the subtitles of this movie and just movies in the Philippines in general, there are often subtitles in English because there are a hundred languages in the Philippines and people who speak some of the languages don't necessarily speak Tagalog, but everybody is assumed to have some basic understanding of English. Is that accurate?
Phil: It's a little simplistic, but yes. The story goes that the Filipino itself was developed because Manuel Quezon, who is in this movie again, was on a boat and heard two people from different provinces talking to each other and they had to talk to each other in English. And that's why we established Filipino as a national language because our president saw, "Oh, hey, this is not great. It's not great that we cannot talk to each other in a language other than English."
Jonathan: Right. We've totally lost the plot.
Phil: Yeah. Going back to Luna.
Jonathan: Yeah, please.
Phil: Luna was kind of a word of mouth success. It didn't do so well in its first couple of weeks, but words spread around. I think the thing that makes Heneral Luna different from other previous historical films is that it gained to be critical of our history. It isn't just a hagiography of this hero. It's this broader look at why we failed to fend off the Americans. And I think people connected to that after years and years of disillusion. People are suddenly like, "Oh, history's actually interesting rather than what is taught in schools, which is pretty much just telling us that these guys were great and they did great things and we lost to America, but who knows why?"
Jonathan: Luna is a, it’s a movie about Filipinos killing Filipinos and then screwing themselves over in the process. And then this is the sequel is the extended denouement of that crisis at the end of the first film in your Letterboxd review about this movie. You say, "This isn't the story of heroic warriors fighting for freedom really, for the film, the revolution died with Antonio Luna and all the rest is just wealthy Ilustrados, so basically elites, playing being soldiers. It's Fiestas and parties in the middle of what's supposed to be an existential fight for the nation. It's a courtship that trumps the concerns of an impending invasion. This is a movie about being wrong. So very, very wrong."
Phil: Yes. I thought that was pretty good too.
Jonathan: Yeah. I thought it was great.
Gen. Elwell Otis (E.A. Rocha): At one point, they're going to have to admit that America is the best thing that ever happened to their country. You can translate this: That you are guests of the Eighth Army Corps. You've been given a safe passage across American lines, good for 24 hours. After that, you're expected to leave the territories or face arrest and imprisonment.
Jonathan: One of the things that stuck out to me as an American, especially when I was watching Luna, was that I wasn't used to seeing movies in which the Americans are just the unalloyed bad guys. Sometimes, well, movies about the Vietnam War, including Apocalypse Now, which was shot predominantly in the Philippines, right? Those are movies all often about Americans doing bad things, but you've got for every Colonel Kurtz or Robert Duvall, you've got the Martin Sheen character who's wrestling with himself and trying to think of where do we go wrong? And then we've got great American music in the background. And in Luna, and this is also true I think in Goyo, the Americans, they're just the villains. I mean, they're just almost kind of cardboard cutout bad guys, which took me by surprise, but you're noting that it wasn't really that so much as the criticism of Filipinos by Filipinos and of these really important revolutionary historic figures that got so much attention that helps first Luna and then I guess maybe this one find its audience.
Phil: Well, first of all, yeah, the Americans are villains. It's a running theme in our history so I think that's almost a given. I think the way history is taught here, which was pretty much established by Americans themselves because they ran our schooling system for 40 years. I mean, it's tends to be kinder to Americans, but yeah, we've had a push and pull relationship, I guess, with our relationship with America as a whole. It's a colonial thing. I grew up thinking America is great. It's the dream, right? It's the Filipino dream to move to America because that's where all our richest people went and then came back from. That's where they found work and then they sent money back here and you saw all those families becoming affluent because of the American dream.
But yeah, the more you study our history, it's like, "Oh yeah, no, colonialism sucks and we really shouldn't have been under the imperial thrall of America." But I think it's not super uncommon already to be like, "Oh yeah, blame America," outside of the US. It's a pretty common sentiment.
Phil: What I think is uncommon in these movies is the idea that like, "Oh yeah, our heroes were human. They were a bunch of messy folks who kept doing messy things who kept sabotaging themselves." That's kind of a running theme in Goyo where we hear the letters of Apolinario Mabini. Apolinario Mabini is maybe the one person who comes out of these films still pristine, still a real hero. He was called basically the "Brain of the Katipunan". The Katipunan was the revolutionary army of the Philippines. The film frames its criticism of our heroes with his letters, the letters that he sent to Emilio Aguinaldo, where he was saying to Aguinaldo, "Hey, what you're doing is wrong and we're going to lose because of-"
Jonathan: He's sort of the philosopher and chief of the revolution. I mean, to put it in American centric terms, he's maybe the Jefferson of the revolution. He's the one providing the intellectual framework and writing the prettiest things. He's not a soldier.
Phil: Yeah. He's not a soldier. And he had a disability, he was stuck in a wheelchair for most of his life because of polio. Although interestingly, other side note to that, is that Aguinaldo, apparently there was a... Again, because he was so beloved by other people, there was news going around that he got lame because of syphilis, which was apparently rumors being spread again by heroes because this is a running theme in Filipino history.
One of the most interesting things about the Philippines is that because it's an archipelago, it's hard to think of the Philippines as a singular nation, honestly. It's a really a bunch of provinces that develop independently of each other. When we say that we have over a hundred language, that's because there was very little interconnection between these provinces and the revolution grew out of these different provinces and these provinces didn't necessarily get along with each other. Manila was the center of government, but Emilio Aguinaldo, for example, was from Cavite nearby in the south. The conflict between provinces led into a conflict between these generals of the Katipunan and that's why the revolution was such a shit show.
Jonathan: Right. And the main character of Goyo, Del Pilar, the boy general, he's portrayed at least in the movie as being almost like the Darth Vader to Aguinaldo's Emperor or Grand Moff Tarkin. Because at the beginning of the movie, he's tasked with rounding up the remaining Luna loyalists, right? I mean, it's a little bit like pursuing the rebels to the ice planet, Hoth, at the beginning of Empire Strikes Back. If Aguinaldo is the villain or the sub-villain, behind the Americans of Luna, then the hero of this one is also an outgrowth of that villainy in the first movie, right?
Phil: Goyo is in the first movie. And even then, he's shown to be contentious at least with Antonio Luna, precisely because he was Aguinaldo's favorite and he was shown to mostly defy the orders of Antonio Luna because he would only take orders from Aguinaldo. And yeah, here he is... This is what I think one of the most interesting things about the film is that the film doesn't like Goyo very much. It doesn't like its main character very much. The opening act really shows him he's called a dog, he's called a dog of Emilio Aguinaldo. And there's very little in the film that contradicts that fact. And you could read the film as his whole messing around in the Dagupan, spending his time flirting with ladies in Dagupan was the only way he could deal with the fact that he wasn't really a soldier anymore. That he was a pet dog to this higher power.
Jonathan: He's played by Paulo Avelino. He's a star of romantic comedies in the Philippines, right?
Phil: Yeah. Yeah. He looks like it, right? But I think that was always the concept behind Goyo because the things that are written about him. He was quite a heroic soldier prior to him becoming a general. But when you read about his stuff in Dagupan in Pangasinan, he really was just messing around and famously, Goyo had a lot of women. He slept around, he got around.
Jonathan: Yeah. And the movie makes a big deal about that. There's the scene where he's at the party and he is dancing with his chief love interest. And then it's the photographer, right? Joven, the fictional character who's in the movie in, I don't know, like a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sort of role. He's just sitting at the side, reading all of these letters from other women who are like, "I know you have another woman." And there's letters from 20 different women, right?
Phil: Yeah. It's a running them with our national heroes. Jose Rizal, our actual national hero, was also known to be a playboy much has been made of his gallivanting around Europe.
Jonathan: That's really interesting.
Jonathan: Rizal being the poet essayist who wrote against the Spanish and was assassinated by the Spanish before the Americans got involved. Yeah. So, I mean, what do you think about this movie? Is it a good movie? How did it do? Did people like it? Was it as popular as Luna was? What do you think about it?
Phil: I like it. I do have my reservations. Again, I think it's very interesting as a historical document. The issue is as a movie, you tend to want a movie to like the main character. To build to the tragedy of Gregorio del Pilar, you have to feel something for him, but he really was just an asshole mostly. And he's not that interesting a figure.
I mean, again, in the context of looking at it as from history, it's certainly interesting that the film would cover how the Philippine army spent five months doing nothing when they could have been basically waiting for the United States to reinforce their troops. It's an interesting thing to see. Oh yeah, they're having parties and stuff. And I think the film covers a lot of interesting ground in that way. It also covers the treatment of indigenous peoples by the Philippines army really shows that the revolution wasn't as inclusive as it could have been. In fact, Gregorio in the movie is actually written as historical fact that the Philippine army was betrayed by an Igorot guide who taught them a back way into Tirad Pass and that's why the Philippine army was surrounded.
Filipino soldier: [Tagalog 00:25:02]
American solider: Did he say general?
Filipino soldier: (speaking Spanish) El general está muerto! El general está muerto!
American soldier: We got him, we got the general.
Jonathan: Mapping this onto Smedley Butler and Gangsters, this five month period where the Filipino Revolutionary Army could have been preparing for the next reinforcements. It's that period when Butler and the Marines come in and part of the reason why it takes the Americans so long to send reinforcements is because there's a fight going on within Congress about sending more of the army, because there were still, even at that late date, arguments going on within American politics about whether the United States should have basically a standing army, large numbers of soldiers in the army, that would be able to go overseas at moments notice because again, the war in 1898, the Spanish-American War, the Spanish Cuban Filipino American war, that was the first overseas war that US troops were part of where large numbers of soldiers got on boats and got off the boat.
And while that fight was going on in Congress about sending the army, the McKinley administration decided to send the only troops that they had direct control over, which were the infantry of the Navy, a.k.a the United States Marine Corps. And that is why Smedley Butler ended up in the Philippines. He gets to the Philippines in October of 1899. So right when these things are happening and as the army, or really in preparation for army, going north to pursue Aguinaldo, which is on the way they end up at this rear guard action at Tirad Pass. Butler and the Marines are on the Cavite peninsula, south of Manila next to Manila bay.
And they're fighting against the remnants of the Philippine army that was there. And then after all of this, Aguinaldo, the character of Aguinaldo talks about this in this film, he decides, "Well, we're not doing it on the battlefield. Let's divide ourselves among the different provinces and meld into a guerilla war." Which is the form that the war ends up taking on Samar and then ends up taking for the decade after that. But anyway, I just wanted to throw that in as in context to sort of tie it to things that maybe people who are listening to this might be more familiar with at this point.
Phil: Isn't it entirely possible that Smedley Butler was one of the Marines who receive the prisoners of war that the Philippines traded to the US?
Jonathan: Oh, yes. You're talking about me now.
Phil: Yeah. The character you played so brilliantly for five seconds might have been guarded by Smedley Butler.
Jonathan: Let's think about that. As a critic and as an expert on Philippine film, do you think... I prepared for that role. Let me talk about my preparation for that role. I prepared for that role by the costume department taking away my shoes and my glasses and my cell phone so I was blind. And then there was a pretty big monsoon rainstorm that ended up flooding the set and stopping filming for a while. I found myself along with my fellow prisoners of war in this flood of this soup of fake dirt, real dirt, styrofoam from the set, and then submerged black wires that I was afraid were going to be killing myself and the other extras. I assumed that they would get the leads off the set before that happened. But so just noting that, were you captivated by my five seconds on screen? How do you think I acquitted myself? Is there a future for me in Filipino film?
Phil: I can at least say, Jonathan, that your experience came through on screen.
Jonathan: That's great. Thank you for that. I really appreciate that.
Phil: Yeah, no problem. Yeah.
Jonathan: There's going to be a third film in this series, right?
Phil: Oh, well, let's see. I mean, we'll see. I mean, the pandemic has really shut production down. Jerrold Tarog is working on a big superhero property here.
Jonathan: What's that?
Phil: We have basically these knockoff DC heroes here all created by this one creator, Mars Ravelo. Darna is our Wonder Woman. She swallows a stone and becomes a Wonder Woman analog. And he's been working on that for a while, but it's a troubled production that's switched director several times. But yeah, he seems to be the final one doing it, we'll see.
Jonathan: Is there a hard edged but with a heart of gold, white American Jewish, bald figure that they would need to cast a journalist? I just want to know if my agent should get in touch with.
Phil: Well, we could always use more villains and white people are easy villains in Filipino cinema.
Jonathan: One of the things about this movie is it's at least it struck me as long. The run times what? Two and a half hours?
Phil: Two and a half hours. It is quite long.
Jonathan: I mean, they spend about... It's about half an hour of screen time on the final battle, right?
Jonathan: First of all, is that typical of movies in the Philippines? And second of all, did you think it worked?
Phil: I wouldn't say it's typical. Our most famous filmmaker is Lav Diaz and he makes ginormous movies, four hours, eight hours is not uncommon with him, but he is an outlier. I mean, this film in itself is an outlier in the Philippines. Mostly the typical Filipino releases either a horror movie or a romantic comedy. The industry has compressed, I don't know, since we started sending people out of the country to work, we've had fewer and fewer kinds of movies. I think they were bolstered by the success of Luna and they thought, "Yeah, no, let's try it. Let's make the actual epic film that maybe this story deserves." Except I'm not sure that the story actually deserves it because it's not actually a war epic, it's actually just half of it is Goyo just spending time in a town being regaled by women, swimming in the river with his friends.
Jonathan: And then having constant PTSD flashbacks to things that have happened before that.
Phil: I like the idea of being presented with history that isn't a war thing, but maybe what should have been done then is we spent that hour in the Dagupan with him messing around and then cut immediately to him dying in Tirad Pass, because I think that makes for a more interesting movie that says a lot more about who he was and what this whole thing was.
I think the trek of the Tirad Pass has interesting things in it, shows his disillusionment with the leader that he's following. But it creates two tones for the film where one, it's this romantic film, a romantic comedy, almost a hangout movie with Ilustrados in 1899 and the other half is this almost this survival film trudging through the north Philippines trying to get somewhere.
I don't think that's invalid. I think it's a very fascinating way to approach this particular story. I mean, Goyo didn't do nearly as well as Heneral Luna. Part of it was just people were like, "Oh, it's really long and I don't really understand the tone that this film is going for." Because Heneral Luna presented its hero as somebody completely unlikable, but he was totally in the right. This is a film where the hero is unlikable and the film thinks he's an idiot.
Jonathan: Right. I mean, there's very strong nationalistic overtones. I mean, at the end... So Tirad Pass is obviously a mountain pass and there are all these scenes where Goyo and a captain who I guess had been loyal to Luna are standing on this mountain and they're going on these soliloquies about the Philippine nation and how it doesn't really matter who's the leader of the Philippines, that Aguinaldo could die, but what really matters is sort of protecting the nation, which is symbolized by this view of the mountains, right?
Actually, I mean, I should ask. There's a pretty powerful personality in charge of the Philippines right now in Rodrigo Duterte. Do you think the filmmakers were trying to sort of put in some subtext there and be like, "Well, it doesn't really matter who's in charge." There's a bit at the end where one of Mabini's letters is quoted and I guess he's reading the quote, the actor who plays him. And he's basically saying that the problem was that in order to win a revolution, you have to have loyalty to the nation, but that Aguinaldo just wanted to have people who were loyal to him. Is there some subtle or perhaps not so subtle tweak of Duterte running through this? Or am I reading way too much into this from the comfort of being overseas?
Phil: I think if you ask Jerrold Tarog, he'll tell you that the script was written before Duterte was elected. He'd tell you that he isn't being reactive. But as somebody who watched it, I think it's unavoidable to want to talk about charismatic leaders, I guess, to talk about these people who are all about maintaining power above all else. It is just the story of the Philippines. And some would say that Heneral Luna, which presented this cursing hero, strong man general, some would say that like, "Oh, that's actually part of the zeitgeist that got a strong man like Duterte elected and Jerrold would probably deny this, but how can you as a filmmaker be accused of that and not try to create some sort of corrective in the film that follows?
Phil: I think the film does speak of that, whether it was intended or not. It speaks of this idea of the Philippines as basically a bunch of tribes protecting each other. And that there's this ruling elite that doesn't really care about the people that they're ruling and just giving out all these promises about how things are going to work out or whatever and none of it ever working out where their primary concern is making deals with other powerful people. The parallels are, I think, indisputable, they're there whether it was intended or not.
Jonathan: Right. And it was something that people would see in the theaters.
Jonathan: Do you know what Duterte's response was? He loved Luna, right? Do you know what his response was to Goyo?
Phil: I don't think the film made enough of a splash for the president of the Philippines to comment on it. So I don't know. I don't know if he even saw it. He was probably too concerned with killing more people to watch Goyo.
Jonathan: How much longer is left in his current term?
Phil: We have an election this year so everything is terrible and the internet is a place to avoid now in the Philippines.
Jonathan: And he's not running for reelection?
Phil: Ever since our constitution in 1986, after we toppled a dictator who spent 20 years in power, we decided that term limit should be six years and only one term for president. He can't run again. His daughter, Sara Duterte, is running for vice president and her running mate is Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the dictator that previously talked about being ousted. So yeah, things are great, Jonathan.
Jonathan: That's fantastic. That's wonderful.
Phil: Yeah. This is where we talk about history is not very important to the Philippines.
Jonathan: Is this the daughter who's rape allegations he mocked? Or is that a different daughter?
Phil: I don't know. She was the mayor of Davao. She basically took his post.
Jonathan: So this is essentially Ivanka Trump teaming up with this, I don't know. Because we didn't have-
Phil: You didn't have a dictator.
Jonathan: Yet. But yeah, it would be Ivanka Trump running with the child of, I don't know, George Wallace, George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi party or something.
Phil: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's bizarre. Again, this is about the Philippines being fragmented. We did oust the dictator, but his stronghold up north in Ilocos, where actually this movie ends, kept... The northern Philippines just kept loyal to the Marcoses and we failed to take away their wealth. We failed to recover the wealth that they stole from the Philippines. We somehow kept them in the media. The elite were almost ready to welcome them back.
They became magazine poster kids. They ended up on the covers of magazines and the magazines that talked about the society, Philippine society. And yeah, this is where we are. He actually failed to win the vice presidency in the last election. It was theorized that the Marcoses, that family, were funding Duterte, hoping that the Ferdinand Marcos Jr. would become the vice president and that Duterte would just step away from the presidency if they both got elected. Thankfully, our current vice president, Leni Robredo, made it to the vice presidency and she's running this year and well, we'll see. We'll see.
Jonathan: So what's his nickname? Is it boom boom? Is that right?
Phil: Bongbong. Bong as in sound of a terrible bell.
Jonathan: Bongbong, got it.
Phil: Yeah. Bongbong calling the death knell of the Philippines.
Jonathan: Lovely. Beautiful.
Phil: Yeah. Yeah.
Jonathan: I have to ask, I mean, there have been severe curtailing of speech and of the press in the Philippines. It seems like you're speaking out about this pretty freely. Is this something that people can do or do you just not give a shit anymore?
Phil: I think like all things in the Philippines, it's just when they go after you for speech it's personal, rather than some higher minded fascistic intentions, although they are fascistic, don't mistake that. But they go after Rappler because it was a personal issue between the Duterte and Maria Ressa. So yeah, I'm just a film critic. I mean, certainly studios have gone after me. Film distributors have tried to sue me, but yeah, I don't make enough waves to actually be a target for anybody.
Jonathan: Okay. Well, good. Before we put this out, I want to be sure of that.
Jonathan: Speaking of film studios, the head of the studio that made this movie plays the lead American General Elwell Otis in this, right?
Phil: Yeah. He's been in the film industry for a few years, a couple of decades actually. He was an actor mostly. He ended up forming this production company specifically to produce films like this. Luna was their first big project. This is what our studio's going to do. We're going to make these big films that actually have ambition because that's always been the criticism of the Filipino film industry.
Yet, we certainly make a lot of interesting, good films. But because the budgets are so small, ambition has to be, let's say, conceptual. You can have thematic or conceptual ambition, but the actual kind of staging of the production has to be limited. You can't have a war epic, you can't have a big sci-fi film. So what they set out to do was to let's spend a lot of money and then hopefully we'll make a lot of money back. It's a weird thing because of course, he and his partner, they're of the [Maniclas 00:42:35], they're descendants of the hacienderos of the Spanish hacienderos who came here and got really rich off being basically given land. And now they're funding films about the Filipino revolution. So, well, okay, that's a strange wrinkle.
Jonathan: Yeah. And all of the Americans in the movie, except for the dashing red bearded POW but all the major American roles are played by Filipino actors, right?
Phil: As far as I know, yes. They did not import any Americans to do it.
Jonathan: So you said that this film did not do as well as Luna did. Was there a fallout? I mean, has it hurt anybody's career? Is Paulo Avelino back to doing romcoms? Or what have the people who were in this, what are they doing since? You said Tarog is working on a superhero franchise, but what are the others doing?
Phil: Paulo Avelino continues to do what he does. He showed up in a film, he's been doing a TV series. In the Philippines, actors, their bread and butter is TV. It's the more regular gig. It's the more steady gig. That's where they make the most money. So films are actually almost just a prestige thing for them. In 2020, he did a film called Fan Girl, which is also on Netflix, which is also a film very critical of the current government, though it does it obliquely telling a story about this girl who gets to meet her favorite actor. Paulo Avelino actually plays himself, a version of himself, and they spent a couple of days in this abandoned house. And he's kind of a psycho. It's great. I like it a lot, you should check it out.
Jonathan: So in your final analysis as a critic, thumbs up or thumbs down? It's on Netflix, should people go watch Goyo?
Phil: I'm always going to tell people to just watch Filipino films. I do have my reservations about this film, but I think what I value most in the film is that it really expresses something about the creator, whether or not you think it's good or bad. The most interesting thing for me when like, "Oh, I can hear a creator's voice behind it." And I think this film very much has a very distinct voice, certainly a distinct approach to history that's different from almost anywhere else in the world. I's very specifically Filipino. It has this weird anguish to it despite its big production values beside... This is trying to do epic stuff you feel. I think what mostly comes through is frustration with the Philippines and anguish, but yeah, no, check it out. See Heneral Luna too, which I think is also flawed, but I mean, great performances. And also, that same sense of anguish that I think really makes the film more than what it might seem at first.
Jonathan: Is there another movie from the Philippines that you think people should also be sure to check out?
Phil: There are a lot of things. I think the first things I would recommend are a couple of documentaries. There's this film, Aswang, A-S-W-A-N-G, which is a documentary about the drug war in the Philippines. It's terrific. I think PBS showed it. Check out their website, aswangmovie.com and that stuff is there. On [two B 00:46:05], there's this documentary called Sunday Beauty Queen, which is about Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Every Sunday is their day off and sometimes they hold beauty pageants for themselves. It's really interesting. Oh, you mentioned Apocalypse Now earlier. There's this film called Apocalypse Child from 2015, I think. It's available, I think, on to rent on Apple TV. And it is set in Baler where Apocalypse Child was set or it was shot. And the main character is a guy who might be the son of Francis Ford Coppola.
Jonathan: Oh really?
Phil: Yeah. Yeah. It's not a documentary.
Jonathan: Okay. Okay. Okay. This is not a true story. Got it. Got it.
Phil: Baler is an interesting place because they shot the... The lore goes that surfing... It's a surf town now, but they say that surfing started there specifically because Apocalypse Now was shot there and the Americans left surfboards and the locals picked it up.
Phil: In general, a lot of what's happened to the Philippines because Americans left something here, cinema itself. Cinema itself might be because the Americans took us over and built cinemas in Manila to serve the expatriate crowd.
Jonathan: Well, on behalf of the United States, I guess you're welcome for the movies, but sorry about the rest of it. I suppose.
Phil: I do not accept your apology. This will, of course, come off as pure bias and perceived as nationalism, but I think Filipino cinema is for the last 10 years, I think we've been making some of the best films in the world. If you're somebody who follows the festival scene and you'll see that the Philippines is weirdly overrepresented in international film festivals, but if they're stuck in festivals, then that doesn't help anybody. But it's easier than ever to see Filipino films because of streaming and stuff like that.
All of the films of Lav Diaz who could be described as the Filipino Tarkovsky maybe, the Filipino Béla Tarr, they're all up on MUBI. There's this film, Cleaners. Cleaners is this film from also up north from Tuguegarao, which is a coming-of-age film that it's hard to describe, but it topped several lists last year because its quality is undeniable. It's one of the most unique films out there. So yeah, if you haven't checked out any Filipino films, ignore most of the things on Netflix because that's just the mainstream kind of studio things that can be seen anywhere. But if you stumble onto something weird, it's probably going to be worth your time.
Jonathan: That's cool. And I don't know what's going to happen with possible film adaptations of Gangsters, but there are three chapters in the Philippines so maybe I'll end up working with somebody on something over there.
Phil: Yeah, no. Sure. A Smedley Butler biopic would be fascinating.
Jonathan: Let's do it.
Phil: I'd pay to see it.
Jonathan: All right. Well, Phil, thank you for coming on. This was a great conversation.
Phil: Yeah. This was fun.
Jonathan: Philbert Dy is a writer and film critic in Quezon city, Philippines. You can find him on Twitter @philbertdy, on Letterboxd. Thanks for coming on today, Phil. That was terrific. Sign up at theracket.news or hit the subscribe button wherever you're listening to this right now, Spotify, Downcast, iTunes, wherever you listen to podcasts so you don't miss the next episode of The Racket and the next Gangsters movie night. While you're there, leave us a review. It really helps people find us. Thanks to The Racket podcast team. This episode is produced by Evan Roberts, Annie Malcolm, and Sam Thielman. Our theme music is by Los Plantronics. Thanks for listening. Stay safe. Buy Gangsters of Capitalism. See you next time.