Set in 1898 at the time of the Philippine War of Independence, Mark Meily’s historical costume drama takes place in the small town of Baler which is administered and occupied by a 57-man Rifle Battalion of the Spanish army. Based on a true story, the film focuses on the romance between Celso, a half-Spanish, half-Filipino soldier in the battalion, and Feliza, a local girl whose father carries a grudge against the Spanish for the murder of his uncle, and rape of his sister.
Celso and Feliza’s clandestine trysts become almost impossible, however, when the Filipino rebels, emboldened by victories in other parts of the country and the return of General Aguinaldo from Hong Kong, launch attacks on the battalion, forcing them to take refuge in the local church. During the year-long siege that ensues (it is well known as the Siege of Baler in Philippines history), the battalion is unaware that the Spanish have surrendered to the Philippines, which has now been declared a Republic, and that they are losing several of their colonies, like Puerto Rico and Cuba, to the Americans. When proof of defeat comes in the form of a newspaper, the Baler battalion is the last Spanish unit to surrender but the delay has changed the course of all their lives forever.
Marking a change from his contemporary comedies Crying Ladies and La Visa Loca, Meily’s third feature shows a considerably serious sense of purpose in his approach to history. Constructed essentially as a family melodrama set in the time of great change in emerging nationhood, the film also shows the mix of cultures, loyalties and affinities that characterize the diverse origins of the Filipino citizen and society. There is no real “good” or “bad” character in this film but rather different shades of ethnicities and ideals. The cross-cultural romance that forms the pivot of the narrative is echoed in the divided loyalties within the battalion and the family.
Filipino film icon Philip Salvador makes a welcome appearance as the impassioned father, while Anne Curtis is charming as his daughter who is determined to love the supposed enemy. Rebellion in this case is not only found on the battlefield, but also in the home.
Baler swept the board at the 34th Metro Manila Film Festival Awards, winning 10 awards including best picture, director, screenplay and cinematography.