Tondo in our cinema has largely become shorthand for grit and tragedy. It is the setting for all sorts of dark, violent stories of crime and desperation. This is not the case with Hari ng Tondo, which casts a sober yet hopeful eye on the community. It doesn’t ignore the problems associated with the area, but it presents a far more interesting portrait than is usually given to Tondo. The movie does suffer from the excesses from mainstream narrative, but its heart always seems to be in the right place.
The movie concerns struggling tycoon Ricky (Robert Arevalo), who at the start of the movie is being told that he is at risk of going bankrupt. He decides that he and his family have gotten too comfortable living the high life, and that he wants to move back to an old property in Tondo. He also challenges his two grandchildren (Rafa Siguion-Reyna and Cris Villonco) to join him and learn the pleasures of a much simpler life. But Ricky’s children aren’t happy with the arrangement, and actively try to sabotage their experience.
The plot really breaks down in the details. The story involves too many scenes of outright villains making nefarious plans for no real discernable reason. The film betrays its version of reality by having one of its characters be completely devoid of simple morality. The film is actually better when it isn’t trying to move the story forward. The real pleasures of this movie lie in its portrayal of this small community. The gradual integration of these outsider characters provides the film’s most potent moments. The film really works off the brilliant tension of the characters subconsciously seeing themselves as betters or saviors, and the real story lies in the breaking down of those preconceptions.
But even that idea does get excessive at points. There is a montage late in the film that has Ricky wandering the streets of Tondo, apparently realizing just how bad it’s gotten for the first time. And while the idea behind the scene is solid, the execution takes it a place of high opera that doesn’t really mesh well with the more low-key comedy and drama that fuels the best parts of the picture. Still, even this bit of excess only serves to highlight just how earnest the film. Intellectually, the scene does feel a little corny, but it’s the kind of corny that can win you over.
At the heart of this picture is the rock solid presence of Robert Arevalo. Though the actor is still subject to the film’s most melodramatic moments, he’s able to provide something subtler in the film’s more normal moments. Arevalo sketches out an internal arc for his character, his expressions detailing the struggle of a man trying to reconcile a idealized history with the harsh reality. Rafa Siguion-Reyna and Cris Villonco are excellent in their roles as well. And Rez Cortez squeezes a surprising amount of emotion from a fairly confusing character.
Hari ng Tondo might feel a little corny. It might feel a little old-fashioned. It certainly feels dramatically miscalculated at points. But there is never any doubt of the film’s genuine heart. Through its sheer earnestness, the film can win you over. One just has to be open to that possibility. If nothing else, the film presents a side of Tondo that just isn’t shown often enough. The film triumphs because it’s able to highlight the joy within the troubled streets, finding the hope that is all too often ignore.