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. 
THE STORY
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. 

FIRST IMPRESSIONS?
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.
CASTING
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.
FAVORITE SCENES
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.
AFTERTHOUGHT
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.
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24 thoughts on “Manila Kingpin: The Untold Story of Asiong Salonga

  1. The actress playing Fidela nga only had her face going for her, Ate, I totally agree. I could practically see her squirm every time she had to kiss her aged Asiong. Had a crush on Baron when I was younger too. Yeah, I hope he stays sober.

    Tell us your daddy's story too, Ate! Might be worthy of a film fest action movie. Hihi. ^_^

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  2. Actually Asiong Salonga was throned as the King of Tondo by the people of Tondo itself. Being the Robinhood of Tondo. Boy Zapanta, Viray, Pepeng Hapon and Turong Pajo are all from Tondo. Totoy Golem lived in San Nicolas. But Totoy Golem, being the rich and powerful Gang Lord, terrorize not only Tondo but throughout Manila. He was the True Manila Kingpin but Salonga is the King of Tondo.

    And yes Asiong was killed at a Sari-sari store while attending a Christening as a Godfather. Well Golem is too so to think they become “kumpares” at the last hours of Salonga. And no, Asiong is alone when he had a drinking session with Golem. They were only four of them. Asiong, Golem, Erning toothpick, and one of Golem's comrade.

    Erning toothpick surrender to the Manila police right after the tragedy and claimed that the he used just took off during a struggle with one of Asiong's comrade which later was proven wrong because Asiong was alone.

    Golem did not die during Asiong's funeral march. True he was killed by his brother but in a street brawl.

    I agree the cast was all great. Even Governor ER played well but its true he's too old to play the part of Asiong.

    Just a trivia, Asiong had a wife a 7 mistresses.

    The gunfight of Asiong and Hapon was a scene actually copied from the movie FACE OFF by John Travolta and Nicolas Cage.

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  3. Just saw the film today. After watching it I became curious about the real life story of asiong salonga. Kinda felt disappointed after a couple of articles and biography of asiong salonga's life . And how he was really killed. This latest movie is just not that authentic, i wish they could have just stayed close with the real story especially because there character are non fictional. Even e.r ejercito who portrayed asiong is just a horrible choice to play the role of a 27 y/o gangster, he's old enough to play part of asiong's father. What where they thinking. I feel bad for carla abellana , everytime they have a kissing scene there's this eeeew factor. But prior to knowing the real story, i actually liked the film i love the cinematography and i actually believed that the real asiong like in his late 30's but still e.r is nowhere near that age so even if the real asiong is that old he's too old to play the part haha. Anyway, i ended up watching eraps version, that much closer to th truth.

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  4. To anonymous 7/3 5:36 PM – yes, I can't help but gag during the kissing scenes. I did watch the Erap version partially over at Youtube, it's a much better one. 🙂

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  5. hi Anonymous 8/24.

    Thanks for reading thru my post. I actually watch movies at Market Market quite often. But I do try to avoid it since the place tends to get crowded and I am a bit claustrophobic (complete with dizziness and black spots in the eyes when I get surrounded by huge crowds).
    I didn't mean to hurt your feelings and if I did, it was not intentional. God bless.

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  6. I just finished the movie and i loved it. What made it really appeal to me is the fact that gangsters during asiong's time are “protectors” of their bailiwick…and less of terrorize-rs (i prefer it than saying “terrorists”-another thing is associated in my mind when I think of that) as compared to our modern day gangsters.

    And I must say I actually give a thumb up to ER for still pulling it off. Yes, age may be a downer but I really can't think of any young actor with a credibility to play the role of an action star…YET.

    I really liked the movie. I do hope action gets revived in Philippine cinema because it deserves another shot. And also more of themes like Manila Kingpin..something true, something from our history.

    Our film industry deserves and needs to be credited more with elegance. I think movies like Manila Kingpin…ought to start that. Because honestly, I'm getting bombarded with all the adultery-infidelity themed films nowadays. They are astig and nice and all. It's just that something fresh “again” may also mean something better (which is another story..which is another topic.

    And lastly, and again…i love the film. that's it.

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  7. I do agree with all of the above, but in defense to ER he did a great job, considering the fact that all the “young” actors nowadays are pretty gay (no pun intended) and we dont do action genres anymore like they used to, but dramas and our slapstick comedies. I couldnt think of any YOUNG actor who could portray those bad-ass roles effectively, but playing cutesy or tear jerker roles.And to b honest when I saw the cast, I was like “wow, a collection of the Philippines greatest VILLAINS in cinema” though the only unrealistic part of the movie is, well, yeah the age thing.

    This is just my opinion, ive nothing against young actors nowadays..

    Overall, the cinematography was great and for the most part accurate especially for the depiction of the era

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  8. well, i like the story of Manila Kingpin..

    I can only say that ERAP's version is closer than the other version..

    Its true that he was named as TONDO Kingpin as by people of TONDO..

    He truly a bad ass but with a good heart..according to my great grandfather that Asiong is like Robinhood..he always protect the people in tondo..He was killed by Erning during a drinking session with Golem and other golem's comrade..my great grandfather used to live in Angustia tondo..he can only say that they lived in a place of hell..

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  9. I am an original tondo girl from pilapil street tondo manila,thats betweens coral street and perla street, my dads godfathers is a good friend of asiong we still see them though sometimes…on the other hand I just want to correct your last stanza….”te batang tondo ako medyo masakit pakinggan na may mga naghahari at gangsters pa din sa tondo…sa totoo lang ang tondo ang pinaka ligtas na lugar kung talagang taga tundo ka kasi kung talagang taga tundo ka walang gagalaw sayo kasi kilala ka…pero kung di ka talaga taga dun ehhhh ibang usapan na yun…dapat wag maangas…dahil di uin uubra…at wala ng mga gangsters at politicians na naghahari sa tundo para mo namang sinabi na delikado talaga sa amin….ang mga maangas lang naman talaga na nandun eh yung mga dayo na meaning yung mga taga probinsya na gustong tumira sa maynila…ayun nagaangas para masabi na taga tundo sila.. kameng mga kaanak anakan ng mga taga tundo maayos at lumaking may respeto sa mga taong may respeto din sa amin… so sana lang wag naman siraan ang tundo…”. peace and god bless

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  10. hi Anonymous July 5,

    Thanks for your opinion. I am also a Tondo girl – our family has lived there for three generations so think I also earned the right to say that the 3gs still exist. We're not exactly dayos from the provinces. I know of several criminals who hide in the streets of Tondo (and they even brag about it), I have seen people knifed in front of me, I have been robbed and even chased by a knife-wielding goonster – so yes, I know Tondo to still be a violent place at times.

    Also, picking up from your last few sentences:

    “ang mga maangas lang naman talaga na nandun eh yung mga dayo na meaning yung mga taga probinsya na gustong tumira sa maynila…ayun nagaangas para masabi na taga tundo sila.. kameng mga kaanak anakan ng mga taga tundo maayos at lumaking may respeto sa mga taong may respeto din sa amin…” — I have an open mind but I take this to mean that if there's a newbie in town then that person better toe the line, otherwise, he'll earn the ire of the Tondo oldies. Isn't that exactly what violence is?

    Anyway, peace!

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