There are valid reasons why biopics are produced, the most common of which is to tell the story of a popular figure; the “real” one that explains his origin and motivations. Another is to demystify a persona steeped with preconceived notions; strip him out of hearsays and hyperbole; venture on this personality’s charm or notoriety, and understand why such personality fascinates the public.
One of these personalities was Nicasio “Asiong” Salonga.
Asiong Salonga (Jorge Estregan aka ER Ejercito) is an iniquitous mobster boss from Tondo who, in the late 40’s, lived a fast life with plenty of guns and a coterie of women. He was clannish and patriarchal of his townmates, yet implacable towards his enemies. People either feared or admired him. When he married Fidela (Carla Abellana), his grasp of the criminal underground burgeoned further. It helped that his brother, Domeng Salonga (Philip Salvador) was a well decorated, albeit highly regarded police officer. He became so influential that even political parties (he’s pro-Liberal Party) would compete for his good graces and ultimately, his endorsement. Asiong was also generous to the poor, earning him the moniker “Robinhood ng Tondo”.
But not everyone was pleased with Asiong’s rise. His main nemesis constituted a group of miscreants headed by Totoy Golem (John Regala) who wanted him “discarded” for good. After a series of retaliatory shootouts, Asiong was put in prison where he befriended a cellblock mayor (Jay Manalo) who helped hatch an escape. Unfortunately for Asiong, he was imprudent. He got caught. Not long after this, he was propositioned to foil an assassination plot against a local Liberal Party standard bearer who carried enough political heft to give him a parole.
Asiong reclaims his hold in the underworld mob, but had to contend with betrayals within his men. He learned of Erning’s (Baron Geisler) abusive streak. One day, Golem invites him for a conciliatory meeting, unaware that Erning has “jumped ship”. Would Asiong survive the plot?
Filmed in glorious black and white, this ambitious opus has the visual savvy reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai and vestiges of Jonathan Sela’s eye-popping camera work in “Max Payne”. But “Manila Kingpin – The Asiong Salonga Story”, a film not directed by Tikoy Aguiluz, is all gloss and cinematic posturing. The story is pretty trite and uninsightful. It offers a plot that might as well be another henchman’s story. There’s nothing distinct about its narrative. More importantly, it forgot to tell the story behind what we already know: Which family reared him? What made him who he became? We needed to understand the genesis of a mobster – but this wasn’t on the cinematic plate. Was it a problem explained by the very public altercation between director Tikoy Aguiluz (who did not direct this movie, let me be very clear) and the Laguna governor and executive producer? I doubt.
Whether it is Aguiluz’s 115 minute cut or Ejercito’s 150 minute copy, it is obvious that the problem is in the substance, casting and cinematic vision. Or should I offer it to be re-titled to “The Land of the Potbellied Gangsters”? The movie purports to re-introduce Asiong Salonga to a generation who has no idea of his name or nature. It intended to bring back the old-fashioned “Pinoy action movie” which has, thankfully, died a natural death. It intended to make Jorge Estregan a legitimate action figure and dramatic actor in one sweep, something that he never succeeded in his younger days. He was, after all, a starlet, riding in the coattails of his family’s ear-friendly surname. Did anyone remember him in films like “Mga Paru-parung Buking”, “Boy Tornado”, “Kumander Dante”, “Pepeng Kuryente”, and “Gapos Gang”? Didn't think so. Does anyone remember the governor star in a film called “Asiong Salonga: Hari ng Tondo” in 1990 (directed by Armando de Guzman, Jr.)? Why would you remake something that didn’t work the first time? The indomitable human spirit is sometimes nothing but a meaningless folly.
Jorge Estregan doesn't possess the charisma of Joseph Estrada or Rudy Fernandez who both starred as Asiong Salonga in 1961 and 1978 (Title: “Salonga”, co-starring his father, George Estregan) respectively. His signature expression is that of a scowl, and when he’s angry, it turns into a devilish gaze (“nanlilisik ang mga mata”), something that isn’t too different from “the scowl”. Even his declarative sentences feel like constipated ramblings. His foray into real emotions provokes somnolence. Carla Abellana is luminous, but watching her lock lips with the governor inspires goose bumps; it’s a gag-inducing sight. It’s like mixing turpentine and milk, then taking a swig. It’s a potently visceral sensation.
The film, conceived as an action opus, is populated by actors sporting Santa Claus bellies. Seasonal requirement, perhaps? But a genre has to follow a physical criteria to be believable – or did the gangsters of old Tondo really sport such watermelon guts? If these were to find itself in international exhibits, wouldn’t the audience question the use of such unfit actors for a slambang action? We should get Sharon Cuneta for a new "Darna" film, if that's the case.
Others in the cast are wasted in Ejercito’s shadow: Baron Geisler (who’s as nefarious here as his public persona), Amay Bisaya, Joko Diaz, Ronnie Lazaro, Yul Servo, Roldan Aquino, Ping Medina, John Regala, Philip Salvador, Dennis Padilla, Jay Manalo, et.al. The ladies are mere decorative habitues: Carla Abellana, JC Parker, Paloma and the beautiful Valerie Concepcion whose sophistication belonged to that era. Even Asiong explained the role of women in that era: “Dapat lagi kang maganda, malambing, at hintayin mo lang ang pag uwi ko.” Ouch. Don’t we have the right to impose the same? That he should look handsome, at least – if we’re to do what he said?
In one slow motion scene, Asiong charges into a compound filled with his nemesis, each one carrying heavy artillery. In the succeeding gun fight, he decimates 3 dozen armed thugs without even ducking or running for cover. He just took his stride forward, stood unflinchingly stiff, and fired his gun while bullets crossed his path. He came out unharmed. Talk about spectacular, right? Maybe he possessed the powers of Pepeng Agimat or Kumander Inggo?
In another scene, Asiong takes his wife Fidela to a club where we find the handsome Ely Buendia laboriously singing a “kundiman” – a song called “La Paloma”. This scene felt misplaced because haranas and kundimans required full-bodied voices a la Diomedes Maturan, while the iconic Buendia has thin pipes and nasal singing. You do wonder about such artistic choices.
The best part of the movie is the posturing of our protagonist. He stares like he’s ready to devour. He sports an attitude that belies calm and composure. If its attitude we want, its attitude we get… with the pot belly, of course! And not much else.
Totoy Golem (Regala) isn't happy with the competition.
Baron Geisler is Erning
Carla Abellana and Jorge Esregan
Compare Asiong Salonga and a Wong Kar Wai flick (with Tony Leung)
Mark Wahlberg as "Max Payne"
Faces of Asiong: Joseph Estrada and Rudy Fernandez