In the interest of full disclosure, I will start this review by stating that I spent time on the set of Honor Thy Father while writing about it for the April issue of Esquire Philippines.
Honor Thy Father isn’t your typical Metro Manila Film Festival entry. The festival is generally dominated by certain kinds of films, most of them frivolous works not meant to last past the season. This film wasn’t even in the announced lineup, and only managed to make it in by merit of being finished. But now it is here; a much darker, much bolder film than we usually receive during the Christmas season. For that reason alone, it is already worthy of your time. But it is also one of the best films of the year. It is a tremendous showcase of talent both in front of and behind the camera.
The film is mainly set in Baguio. Edgar and Kaye (John Lloyd Cruz) are husband and wife. While Edgar makes a meager living as a gardener, Kaye brings home the bacon through the money they get from the investment company set up by her father. She spends a lot of her time trying to convince others to put money into the scheme. But it turns out that the whole thing is just a pyramid scheme, and it all collapses really quickly. Angry investors show up at their door, threatening violence if they don’t get paid. With everything falling apart, Edgar takes matters into his own hands, resurrecting a long buried past as he tries to get the money that will keep his family from harm.
This Is a very lean film. It rarely stops to provide exposition. Instead, it keeps its focus solely on one character, and trusts the audience to keep up as this character barrels forward into entropy. It does away with narrative clutter, giving full weight to the journey of Edgar as he fights for his family. This grants the film a strong perspective right off the bat, the movie allowing the audience to really feel this story as filter through the experience of this one man. The journey he takes is pretty straightforward: he’s just trying to survive. What ultimately makes the film remarkable is what it says about survival in this world.
The whole film is really about the lie of civilization, about how the structures that supposedly keep society together can only go so far. Through Edgar’s eyes, we witness several illusions of civility, all wrapped up in empty tenets of goodness and spirituality. But in the end it all boils down to capitalism, and when the curtain falls all that’s left are people waiting to be paid. It doesn’t matter that you all worship the same deity, or that you’ve broken bread or spent time chatting about all manner of nonsensical things. The only real bond in the world of this film is family, blood the only thing worth defending when all is said and done.
This is all put together in an amazing technical package. This is a small story that feels large, the direction managing to escalate the mundane conflicts of men to a level that feels epic. It feels thrilling, despite the fact that the narrative seems to actively avoid the kind of scenes that we think of as thrilling. With the film so focused on Edgar, a lot of weight has been put on the shoulders of John Lloyd Cruz. And thankfully, he does not disappoint. This film pushes Cruz outside of his comfort, and the actor delivers in spades. But also noteworthy is Meryll Soriano, who gives what could have been thankless role a measure of depth and feeling.
Honor Thy Father is the film for everyone who’s written off the Metro Manila Film Festival for putting out the same kind of films every year. This is the film that you’ve been waiting for: a serious, smart piece of work that wasn’t just hastily put together to meet the festival deadline. It is marvelously put together, and it doesn’t compromise in anyway. As a member of the selection committee of the MMFF this year, the best endorsement I can think of for the film is that the MMFF didn’t actually want it. This is a film that is much better than the festival that is begrudgingly giving it room. This is one of the best films of the year, and it deserves your time.