It is quite redundant, so to speak, that a film about the untold story of a notorious figure such as Asiong Salonga, has an untold version (which may never see the light of day). But enough of that for now.
The version circulating in theaters as of this writing, as you will vividly notice, is missing a directorial credit. You will not see Direk Tikoy's name, and yet traces of his directorial brilliance can be felt all over the place, at least during the early scenes. Rumor has it that the latter part is the "inepal " (bastardized) version. There were scenes that did not make sense, and another rumor circulated that not only were there edits made without Tikoy's consent, some scenes were even reshot by another director. All sanctioned by Governor E.R. who exercised his authority over the production.
So I'm making the most out of my viewing of the abridged version of MANILA KINGPIN. In respect, the film has a lot of angst faithful to the gangster sub-genre of action films. People are always angry. People are always at each other's throats, and it is understandable since it is late 1940s in Tondo, where crime was rampant and egos were high.
There is considerable amount of genius to the screenplay. Some of the dialogue are music to the ears, while some doesn't make sense. While MANILA KINGPIN was written by two scribes, Roy Iglesias and Rey Ventura, to the average viewer there is no distinction which elements were Iglesias', and which were Ventura's, but having seen some of the work by Iglesias, I'd say the story's rich historical substance came from him.
E.R. Ejercito, as a lot of people have already declared, is noticeably old as Asiong (who died at 28), being around Baron Geisler, Ketchup Eusebio, and Ping Medina among others. His biggest asset is his allusion to Joseph Estrada, what with his voice timbre and posture, and his glare.
And what's up with Dennis Padilla, who did not exist at all during the first half, and suddenly pops like a mushroom after Asiong got imprisoned. Who is he? We know he's an ally of Asiong, but who is he? As Nanay Lilia in SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION FROM LILIA CUNTAPAY says (this has got to be my most quoted movie of 2011), what is his motivation?
Baron Geisler, I think is perfect as the Judas of the movie. It is easy to relate because of his offscreen reputation, and given the demands of his role, it is convenient to hate him.
Carla Abellana, for the role of Fidela (who is a plain housewife in the actual story) seems suitable, but paired with E.R. there's just no chemistry. Carla is too beautiful to be married to a notorious gangster.
We see Asiong also as a womanizer, but that part is explored a little less, thanks to the abrupt and brutal cutting of scenes which resulted to a throwback to bad action films of the 90s. Just plain sex and violence.
There is a palpable amount of style in cinematography and production design; the shootout in the rain executed in slow-mo a la John Woo is impressive, if it did not rip off Wong Kar Wai's THE GRANDMASTERS. Beautiful but shameful. If I had to choose between magnificent and original, I'd choose original.
Also, the kalesa (horse carriage) chase scene was one of the reasons that made me anticipate the movie (from the trailer) only to find out that the haphazard editing desecrated what could have been an artful sequence, and to realize after the movie that kalesas as depicted in the movie are too fast to be close to reality. To think of it now, the idea IS absurd.
Hence we can surmise that E.R. really wanted his movie to be an all out action vehicle, which is sad because the edit ruined the movie. E.R.'s wish can be fulfilled, and it can even be a cinematic wet dream for action fans, but only if there was ample time for reedit, or if you are John Woo.
Another strong point in the movie: the sibling conflict between Asiong, who is a career criminal, and Domeng (Philip Salvador) who is a cop. This theme was emphasized adequately, and Philip Salvador's turn as the older brother torn between family and duty is a great casting decision.
I missed John Regala as the bad guy. He acted in countless action films in the 90s as the villain, and his voice alone sparks fear. He handles Totoy Golem here with conviction, and authority.
Come second half, the plot spirals out of control. Asiong gets imprisoned, meets a cell mayor (Jay Manalo) who helps him escape (but why hasn't Jay Manalo escaped himself?), and becomes reckless which results to him returning to jail. Jay Manalo acts with firmness here, but is his character really necessary? And did that scene where Asiong screams in jail, do we really need to see it?
Nevertheless the climactic showdown at Asiong's funeral manages to thrill. E.R. wanted to evoke a sense of redemption at the end for the viewers' sake, and the montage at the end of a young Asiong seems rather fitting to close the film.
The film's message therefore is said in the poster and during the film: "live by the gun, die by the gun". MANILA KINGPIN, underneath the imperfections, and the confusion in creative decisions, and the controversies, is actually an honest film. Filipino viewers have long been waiting for these grand themes of heroic bloodshed and macho culture to return to Philippine cinema. UTANG NA LOOB, MASYADO NA TAYONG MALAMBOT DAHIL SA WALANG KATAPUSANG MGA ROMANTIC COMEDY NA TITULO NG KANTA ANG PAMAGAT AT MGA FAMILY DRAMA NA RESOLUTION DIN NAMAN ANG ENDING AT WALA NANG IBA. BIGYAN N'YO NAMAN NG KONTING BAYAG ANG PHILIPPINE CINEMA. (For crying out loud, we have been too softened by the endless romcoms with song titles as their headliner and family dramas that only end in resolution and nothing else. Give Philippine Cinema some balls!)
MANILA KINGPIN is not perfect (at present condition) but it's a hell of a lot more worth watching than the rest of the MMFF entries this year.
And please release the Director's Cut and let the audience decide!