If there’s one thing I took away from Amigo, it would be that I am totally disconnected from my Filipino heritage and it took a white, super-literary independent film director to make me realize that.
In Amigo, director/writer John Sayles gives us a fictional account of the often overlooked Philippine-American war which “officially” lasted between 1899 and 1902. The epicenter of the movie takes place in the rural village located in Northern Luzon during 1900. In the midst of the aforementioned war, a group of U.S. troops are told to station themselves (or, as they say, “garrison”) in the village by the tough-as-nails Colonel Hardacre (Chirs Cooper). Rafael (Joel Torre), the mayor of the village is then put under pressure to help hunt down some of the Filipino guerrillas lurking in the surrounding jungle. Rafael is further conflicted considering his brother Simon (Ronnie Lazaro) is the leader of the guerrillas in the jungle. Ultimately, Rafael is conflicted and any wrong decision (or even right one) could result in dire consequences.
From my understanding (and Wikipedia research) the war, in general, was between the United States and Filipino revolutionaries to gain independence. That said, this small slice of the Philippine-American War is very difficult to digest because there seems to be too much to stuff into 128 minutes to get a full grasp of this “forgotten war” — which is why the hefty press pack for the movie was helpful supplemental reading. This could be the movie’s downfall and at the same time, it’s strength.
Amigo actually feels like a movie you would watch in history class. There’s an educational mist that is sprayed on the film and there’s enough of a “Hollywood” component to give it a soul. Sayles doesn’t follow the “white man comes and ravages and/or saves village” formula nor does he walk down the road of “savage natives are forced to acclimate to white culture.” He is very even-handed when handling the content. His attention, patience, and urgency for clarity shows and is expected to be reciprocated by the audience — and he doesn’t try to shove it down your throat. He gives you small spoonfuls which allows you to savor this tale.
Diehard Filipino history buffs will definitely be on high alert when it comes to watching this film. There will be a high amount of skepticism, but please remember — this is a fictional account. Plus, his casting is quite thoughtful. In addition to Cooper (American Beauty, Adaptation), indie-but-recognizable actors such as DJ Qualls (Lost, Hustle and Flow), Garret Dillahunt (The Last House on the Left, Raising Hope), and Lucas Neff (also from Raising Hope) fill in the shoes of U.S. soldiers. On the Filipino side of things, there are actual Filipino actors like Torre, Rio Locsin, and Bembol Roco.
Sayles delicately balances a “man vs. self vs. man” narrative with historical content to produce an educational film for those who are willing to listen and it will make you hungry for more Philippine-American War knowledge.
Amigo opens in select theaters on August 19 and expands on August 26.