Friday, July 01, 2016

NYAFF ’16: Honor Thy Father

In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t such a bright idea for a major film festival in the Philippines to allegedly put the fix in against a film co-starring a sitting Filipino congressman. Nor was it such a hot idea to do Erik Matti dirty, as the resulting congressional hearings made clear. Matti was already probably the most important Filipino filmmaker whose films are widely attended by average, everyday people (as opposed to the Slow Cinema of Lav Diaz, for instance). His profile only increased with the controversial but legitimately gripping Honor Thy Father (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Edgar is not exactly a Hallelujah kind of guy, but he endures the rather Evangelical Catholic mega-church preferred by his wife Kaye. As a currently reformed crook, he can also smell something is wrong with his father-in-law’s investment scheme, but he holds his tongue on the condition Kaye does not invest their savings. Of course, she does exactly that, right before the old man turns up dead and the Ponzi scheme crashes. Rather inconveniently, Kaye is now the public face of the scam, which leads to tense stand-offs with the angry mob. However, things really get ugly when their daughter Angel is kidnapped by restitution seekers.

With the Church telling them God will provide, Edgar turns to his criminal family, including his class warrior brother maybe not so ironically played by former Rep. (now Santa Rosa City Mayor-elect) Dan Fernandez. To satisfy the politically-connected kidnappers, Edgar needs six million dollars. That is a lot of cash to find lying around, but he knows the high-handed Bishop Tony is at the peak of his fund-raising push. Suddenly, things take a caperish turn as Edgar and his brothers plot to tunnel and blast their way into Bishop Tony’s coffers.

Matti sort of returns to the noirish action territory of his international hit On the Job, but he is clearly looking to score points against some big targets, including the Catholic Church and Madoff-style financial flimflammery. Yet, to some extent, the business with the Metro Manila Film Festival partially overshadowed its intended polemics. Still, it is worth noting Matti never lets anyone off the hook. In general, the film mostly supports the notion “you can’t cheat an honest man.” Both Edgar and Kaye recognized there was something fishy about the old man’s pyramid scheme, but she got greedy and fell for the lure of easy money.

Deliberately and defiantly playing against type, rom-com heartthrob John Lloyd Cruz does career best work as the intense, soul-haunted Edgar. He is a monster brooder closely akin to Arnold Reyes in Graceland. Sometimes you can actually see wisps of black smoke coming out of his ears. It is also deeply unsettling to see how thoroughly and convincingly Meryll Soriano’s Kaye falls to pieces. Young Krystal Brimner is rather heartrending herself as Angel, perhaps the only “innocent” victim in the film. Conversely, Tirso Cruz III slimes up the joint as Bishop Tony.

Matti has seen the enemy and it is legion. It encompasses the Church and capitalism, but it very definitely includes to Pogo-sian “us.” That doesn’t leave us much to work with, but he has a point when he rubs Kaye’s nose in her culpability. The professionally outraged have recently taken aim at the Koch Brothers for profiting from their early exit for Madoff’s scam. Yet, they are the ones who noticed something was too good to be true and walked away. You could argue the greedy ones are those who stayed. In accordance with that sentiment, you will not find a lot of heroics in Honor, but it is a gritty, lean, and angry thriller. Recommended for fans of naturalistic noir, Honor Thy Father screens tomorrow (7/2) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.