Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story (2011)
A month prior to its release, relationships suddenly got sour with Aguiluz insisting that his name be dropped from the credits of the film that was going to be released commercially and that he be given the opportunity to create and release his director’s cut, claiming that Ejercito shot several new scenes and re-edited the film behind his back. Ejercito, on the other hand, claimed that Aguiluz’s cut was too slow and subpar. Demand letters were sent, cases were filed in court, temporary restraining orders were issued, and eventually, Aguiluz got one half of his two wishes, and had his name stricken out of the film that he deems was bastardized by its producers. The bastardized film, actually, is not as bad as it seems.
Undoubtedly, Ejercito, who is well beyond his 40’s, is miscast as Asiong Salonga, who ruled the streets of Tondo as a benevolent gangster before being gunned down at the age of 27. Brooding alongside actors like Baron Geisler, Ketchup Eusebio and Yul Servo who are decades his junior, he sticks out like a fogey in the middle of an amusement park. Notwithstanding the very obvious attempt by Ejercito to evoke some sort of inner youth in his performance, he more or less communicates Asiong’s authoritative swagger with expert ease. Pitted against John Regala, who plays Asiong’s nemesis Totoy Golem with equal parts cunning and savageness, he impresses because of his vulnerability, his ability to ache and bleed.
Unfortunately, Asiong aches and bleeds in a story that is haphazardly told, jumping from either one action set-piece or one narrative milestone to another with hardly any rhyme or reason. Edited like a music video presumably for the sake of fast pacing, the film suffers even more. It is a film that desperately needs to breathe. Its many vivid action sequences could have been rendered more poignant with a pinch of quietude and serenity. Its documentation of lives enveloped by corruption and violence could be more meaningful with some intelligent characterization from the film’s writers. As it is, the spare and unimaginative story seems more perfunctory to the visual spectacle and the shameless grandstanding. It is definitely quite a shame because its present form shows shades of glory, traces of the film Aguiluz had in mind --- stylish but somber, brutal but human, and entertaining but artful.
Jessie Lasaten’s musical score is most of the time obtrusive. Carlo Mendoza’s cinematography, however, is quite sublime in its masterful use of monochrome. With only light and shadows to play with, Mendoza concocts images that are admirably composed and expertly framed, which lend the film that has been fractured by its disconnected storyline and lousy cutting reliable crutches to walk with. The production design is also quite notable especially with the efforts to recreate post-war Tondo from Ejercito’s hometown of Pagsanjan.
Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story is an undeniable mess of a film. Sometimes, it promises greatness. At other times, it sinks into an embarrassing slump reminiscent of the reason why action films have died in the first place. It seems to be ignorant of what it wants to be or what it wants to say about the testosterone-dominated world it vividly portrays. It is only during one vehemently illogical and anachronistic but miraculously effective sequence that the film, with all its chaotic storytelling and never-ending fistfights, knife matches, and gun battles, manages to say something coherent. Men fight men. Friends kill friends. And in the climactic, slow-motioned and revenge-fuelled orgy of sweat, blood, and bullets, it becomes apparent that the world we live in, as the glaring instrumentals of the pop song the film curiously borrows to set the scene’s action in music forces the audience to sing, is a mad world.
It’s definitely not an awful film. There are still hints of greatness in this haphazardly edited abomination to render it watchable, if not enjoyable. Now that Ejercito had shown the Philippines what he’s capable of, fairness only dictates that Aguiluz be given the opportunity to cut the film his way.
(Cross-published in Lagarista as 'The Strange Case of Asiong Salonga')