SIFF Film Review – Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo

Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo

Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo

Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo (2014) tells the story of Andres Bonifacio, a Filipino revolutionary who – in the late 1800s – led a movement (known as “Katipunan”) against Spanish oppression. The Spanish colonized and controlled the Philippines for more than three hundred years (only to be acquired by the U.S. after the Philippine-American War). It wouldn’t be until after World War II that the country would finally gain independence. Being Filipino myself, this story strikes a particularly close chord. Growing up in the United States, the amount of Philippine history was limited – the Philippine-American War took up only a few paragraphs in our textbooks. So seeing a story such as this reach this end of the world is an accomplishment to praise.

The film itself is (more or less) your standard historical biopic. Enzo Williams directs and helped cowrite the screenplay with Keiko Aquino and Carlo Obispo. Andres Bonifacio (Robin Padilla) is portrayed as a steadfast man with an iron will. The only bit we see of his childhood has him witnessing the brutal execution of three priests by the hands of Spanish rulers. This event will shape Bonifacio for the rest of his life. We flash forward to him as an adult, contemplating how he and his countrymen should approach their uprising. In an early scene, fellow revolutionary Jose Rizal (Jericho Rosales) pleads with Bonifacio to take a peaceful path, arguing that real change won’t occur without education and reform. Unfortunately, the atrocities Bonifacio sees forces him to pick up a sword and rifle.

Bonifacio Movie Still 1

In many eyes, Bonifacio is observed as a national hero. He is nicknamed “Supremo” by his comrades, and to a number of historians is considered the first independent president of the Philippines. Robin Padilla’s performance supports these ideas. Padilla fills the role with the requirements of a historical icon. Bonifacio leads the charge, giving sweeping speeches and is always placed in the front lines during battles. While he is certainly painted as a person who helped enact change, as a character, he is fairly one-dimensional. The screenplay doesn’t allow Bonifacio to develop outside of his historical feats. What was he like at home? What was his relationship like with his siblings and wife? The real Bonifacio was the eldest of six children, but we learn nothing about his family. What did he think? What were his hopes, dreams, or fears? There are only one or two scenes that highlight his vulnerability as person, but those moments are followed by a speech reminding us how much of a hero he was.

Visually, Williams directs with a sleek and polished eye (with assistance from cinematographer Carlo Mendoza). In terms of editing, however, Williams chooses to skip around Bonifacio’s timeline. The narrative takes liberties on where it wants to stop, even passing by years to get to a particular point. This pushes the pacing faster. A lot of ground is covered in a short amount of time, involving the creation of the Katipunan, the staging of battle scenes, and the political infighting Bonifacio will have to succumb to in later years. For a runtime of about one hundred minutes, there isn’t much opportunity to delve in the details.

Speaking of details, there is one really odd sequence that Williams decides to include. It involves the telling of an old Filipino folktale. The folktale is fine on its own, but Williams juxtaposes it with animation that seems to belong in an entirely different movie. It does not fit with the tone of the narrative at all, and the style of the drawings reminded me of comic books. Not exactly what I had expected coming from a historical biopic.

Bonifacio Movie Still 2

The biggest problem is that Williams decided to frame the story as a history lesson, told through the eyes of a high school kid named Joaquin (Daniel Padilla) in the present day. Visiting a museum, Joaquin and his friends learn about Bonifacio through the teaching of the museum’s curator (Eddie Garcia). These scenes are heavy handed and unnecessary. They take away from the flow of Bonifacio’s story thread, wagging its finger at the audience disparaging us for our lack of appreciation for the past. Despite convincing performances from the actors, these scenes hammered in what we can already intuit.

I can appreciate what Enzo Williams tried to do with Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo. There is a lot of heartfelt earnestness here that can’t be denied. As a means to enlighten people of the significance of Bonifacio and this specific time and place, he hit the target dead center. But as a cinematic experience with multi-layered characters and an engaging narrative, it falters. It doesn’t separate itself from similar biopics, and got bogged down by questionable directing choices and soaking melodrama. The closing passages were seeping with over the top emotionality. The story of Andres Bonifacio is an important one and deserves to be shown on screen. I believe the definitive version of that has yet to be told.

C+

FINAL GRADE: C+

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Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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