Movie Review for Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story

Bullet Points

Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story

Crime, Drama | R-13 | 2 hrs
Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story seeks to retell the tale of the legendary Tondo gunman that rose to challenge the most powerful criminals in Manila. In a certain light, it succeeds, depicting a series of big events in Salonga’s tale with beautiful imagery. But in a more conventional light, the film doesn’t have enough connective tissue to make them anything more than a series of random vignettes. But it is an interesting failure, one that might still be worth watching in spite of the flaws. If nothing else, the ambition is keenly felt, producing singular sequences that rise far above the typical MMFF movie.

Small time gangster Asiong Salonga (George Estregan Jr.) has just taken over the territory of Tondo, throwing out the various outside gangs that run their protection rackets in the slum. This attracts the attention of Manila’s crime lords, who then set out to find a way to deal with the upstart criminal. Salonga’s Robin Hood ways make him a hero among the people of Tondo, but he has to contend with both criminals and lawmen, all while dealing with dissention in his ranks and the growing concern of his wife Fidela (Carla Abellana) over his lifestyle.

Movies historically have trouble dealing with real life. Movies require structure, and reality rarely conforms to three acts. Manila Kingpin tries to compress around five years of its subject's life into a two hour movie, and it doesn’t quite work. There’s very little flow to the storytelling, the film obscuring the passage of time and messing up all sense of continuity. The film jumps from event to event, moving forward with no sense of the bigger picture. It’s just missing the connective tissue that keeps stories comprehensible. Fidela, for example, is sometimes pregnant in the picture. But we do not see any births, leaving a logical gap in her appearances. There’s also an early scene where Salonga is shot in the leg, but the effects of the injury are completely forgotten in the next sequence.

Given that, what the film does show audiences can be pretty compelling. Though it doesn’t all hold together, the sequences in isolation can be impressive. There’s a kalesa chase that’s ridiculously enjoyable. There’s a prison death match that’s pretty well choreographed. And there’s a climactic gunfight set to Tears for Fears’ Mad World that’s far more entertaining than it has any right to be. In these sequences, the film embraces a sense of absurdity and subversion that hints at something deeper going on behind the scenes. The stunning black and white cinematography gives these sequences their spark. The images alone might be worth the price of admission.

The performances are fitting so long as the film operates within its self-serious macho confines. George Estregan Jr. is quite good at acting tough, his onscreen kanto-boy swagger providing strange levels to the character, whether intended or not. He doesn’t do as well when he’s called on to emote, the governor offering up only a facsimile of tragedy. His supporting cast is pretty strong, with the villains particularly standing out. John Regala and Ronnie Lazaro bring truckloads of presence to their scenes. A lot of great young talent makes up Salonga’s gang, but they’re generally underused.

Manila Kingpin is heavily flawed, but it’s at least flawed in an interesting way. The film had a lot of story to tell, and it ends up breezing through many of the details of its subject’s life. It only has the bullet points, and in the end, the film does little to expand on the legend of Asiong Salonga. It still has him at a distance: a strange, mostly invincible anti-hero that could not be governed by any sort of rules, whether societal or narrative. In the end, while the story doesn’t quite work out, the myth of Asiong Salonga still looms large. That might be a success in itself.

My Rating:

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