Manila Kingpin: The Untold Story of Asiong Salonga

From the start, it looked like Manila Kingpin: The Untold Story of Asiong Salonga would be the bottom-feeder at the box-office of this year’s Metro Manila Film Fest.  No surprise there, as it had several things going against it: 1) It’s not a franchise, 2) it’s loosely based on Tondo gang lord Asiong Salonga’s life, 3) it doesn’t star any drool-worthy, abs-tastic lead and instead features an aging former actor –turned governor who can’t seem to let go of his movie star dreams, and 4) it’s an action film, and we all know that genre died aeons ago.
In any case, the lowest-grossing film in the MMFF sometimes translates to it being the best among the pack – a sad but rather disturbing proof of the intellect of today’s movie-going public. So, hubby and I decided to test if this theory would prove true for this movie.
Well, it seems that bit about it being the lowest-grossing is not true – as of my last check, it’s the 2nd lowest grossing this year, and judging from the crowd at the last full show last night at Market Market (sorry, we had to settle for this cinema because it’s only five minutes away and I’m still plagued by an almost excruciating headache that I nearly threw up in the car), it looks like its total haul will still increase considerably before the festival officially ends a week from now. The theatre was packed, even more than the Enteng and Panday cinemas, albeit the crowd looked gangsta like the movie. 
To give a short background, this movie is about Tondo gang leader Nicasio “Asiong” Salonga and his fights with Carlos Capistrano alias Totoy Golem, Boy Ventura, and other kingpins in the late 40s-50s. Asiong gained quite a reputation as a local Robinhood and savior of the masses, protecting them from the combined forces of the latter kingpins, which obviously led to him being their target. He married a local beauty, Fidela, with whom he had three kids, although he regularly visits his mistress, a box office cashier at a local theatre, and a bar girl. He ended up in jail twice, frequently helped by the “mayor” (although it is unclear why the mayor himself did not want to escape, given that he was able to arrange for Asiong’s escape the first time, and his release the second time). He finally met his death while having a drinking session with his gang and Totoy Golem, in the hands of his former comrade, Erning. 

Good. I like how it was filmed in black and white and used vintage cars, and looked like it honestly tried to recreate 1950’s Tondo. As it is, the cinematography was superb. Editing was likewise good and the camera had some really good angles, and the script was better than what I’ve come to expect from today’s dialogues that have come to define Philippine cinema nowadays. And contrary to the other movies in the festival, this one actually had a story to tell, although one that has been told several times since the real Asiong lived, and if I remember correctly, its last incarnation also starred Jeorge “ER” Ejercito JR.
Ah yes, him. If I have to criticize one aspect of this movie, it would be the casting. If I hadn’t known that Asiong was only four days short of celebrating his 28th birthday when he was killed, I would have accepted the aging ER in the lead role. But I knew. And even if I didn’t, the movie’s opening scene gave it away: Asiong was being brutally beaten to a pulp by another ganglord, and said ganglord told him he was still too young and “marami ka pang kakaining bigas” implying that he was still a “baby.” And yet, Asiong himself looked as old, if not older, than his assailant. How funny.
And then you have Philip Salvador playing his older brother Domeng, the good cop – again, another miscast. I liked Philip in the 80’s and 90’s when he played all those action roles, but playing a young cop in the 21st century, when he is obviously of retirement age?
The two Salonga brothers should have been re-cast and given to younger actors, especially since ER has practically no acting chops to show off (and yet, he blatantly expresses his desire and expectation to win Best Actor). I was practically squirming in my seat whenever close-ups of these two’s sagging jowls are shown. No offense to aging actors, but please don’t play much younger roles which you know you can’t pull off, not even physically. To compensate, at least Philip can act. And the story of the older brother torn between doing his job as a cop and protecting his younger brother, the criminal, well, it wasn’t the focal point but it was given the right amount of exposure in the movie. And I got quite teary-eyed when Domeng closed the lid on Asiong’s coffin, commenting, “Matatahimik ka na rin sa wakas, Asiong” after he and his late brother’s gang gunned down all his enemies during his funeral march.
Moving on to the bad guys, I’d say the casting of John Regala and Baron Geisler was pure genius. I remember John from the 90’s as well, and I know for a fact that he is a very good actor, though hounded by alcohol and drug abuse and to see him play the villain Totoy Golem (an even more notorious kingpin in Tondo, in my opinion) was such a dream come true (ok, wasn’t really a dream, but you get the picture). And Baron getting the Juda-esque role of Erning, himself saddled by alcohol and drug abuse issues, was brilliant. It’s common knowledge that Baron is a gifted actor; I just wish he’d realize it before he spirals totally out of control in real life.
And I have to admit, Ronnie Lazaro as Boy Zapanta was good. I never really take notice of his talent, because he is usually cast as the underdog, but I realize now that he plays any role given to him with such credence you end up believing he’s a bad guy when he plays one. He’s one underrated actor for sure, at least in the mainstream.
As for the ladies, I just have to say Carla Abellana is too pretty for this movie. But then, every action movie has to have a pretty girl, right? Throw in Valerie Concepcion and that other mistress (who is she, btw?) and you have your ingredients down pat.
My particular favourite is the gun fight between Asiong and Hapon, played by Joko Diaz, in the streets of Tondo, with the rain pouring down on them. As cliché as it may sound, they were actually wearing suits (or something of the sort), with matching hats and holding revolvers in both hands. I know I’ve seen this scene in countless movies (hey, I honestly prefer watching action movies to comedies) so minus points for originality, but the shot was almost artistic.
Another scene which stayed with me was the death of Erning, Asiong’s former close friend turned Totoy Golem acolyte after Asiong discovered that he extorts money from their people. In the movie, Erning was caught by Asiong’s loyal gang, beaten, covered with a sack and hanged from a tree, then burned alive, until one of them fired a mercy shot (or bullet?) to end his agony. It was rather disturbing although it fit in well with the theme of torture, blood, and revenge.
I don’t know Asiong’s personal history, but from a scan of a Manila Chronicle article on his death, he actually got shot at a Sari-sari store, where he was drinking with his men and Totoy Golem’s men. And he in fact made it alive to St. Luke’s where his neighbours took him; he didn’t die on the streets with his wife cradling him as depicted in the movie.
And I am quite confused with how he became “king” of Tondo – I believe that it was Totoy Golem who ruled the place and since this was immediately after the war, this would mean Asiong would have had to establish his claim sometime between 1945 and 1951; quite a short time given that he was young, and he was also jailed. (But then, I realize that Baby Ama was only 16 when he died via electric chair so what the heck).
In any case, the Tondo then is not much different from the Tondo I grew up in. Yes, I am a Tondo girl – born and lived there for the first 18 years of my life, although in a different neighbourhood from Asiong’s. My lola, having ran off from the provinces with nothing but her beauty and her bayong full of money (no kidding, this is a true story; my lola’s clan in the provinces used to own a gold mine which has since dried up and she was once a starlet in the LVN compound) was one of the first residents in that part of Tondo; her house, built in the early 50’s, was actually only the third to be built on that island of Balut. 
As I was saying, Tondo is still ruled by gangs, and the three G’s that ruled in Asiong’s time, still rule now – guns, gold, glory. Criminals still win in the elections and I can even name you three known murderers hiding in the very street where we lived (although for fear of life, I would keep my mouth shut). And yes, I even got entangled in a street brawl, which took two years to fester in our ever so efficient judicial system – my father got into an altercation with a thug over parking space and I thought he was going to stab him (turned out he was wearing knucklers), and being the careless but brave little girl I was (yes, I was only 17 at the time), I charged into the thug, hoping to knock him off long enough for my father to come to his senses (heck, he’s a former athlete, a martial artist, and a sharp shooter for crying out loud; he could easily have defended himself had he chosen to fight back). 
But that’s another story altogether. 
Needless to say, I quite enjoyed the film. Good story and I can relate to the craziness of Tondo. Not that I would want to live there again.