Tuesday, December 29, 2015

On Honor Thy Father

Honor Thy Father takes us to the northern city of Baguio, the country's summer capital, where people wear sweaters because of the cold. The scenes mostly depict pine trees, mountains covered in deciduous vegetation, houses on steep slopes—not the usual Philippine setting for films, yet they are familiar, reminding us of childhood vacations, of Burnham Park, and of strawberry jams.

Many controversies hound this Eric Matti film, but I had only learned about them about an hour before I went inside the cinema. Although still qualified to join the Metro Manila Film Festival, Honor Thy Father has been disqualified from the Best Picture category because the producers allegedly failed to disclose to the screening committee that it had been entered into a different film festival early this year.

We learn the story of a once-struggling family who are finally making it big in business, that which involves collecting money from local people, promising that the money go to big investments.  Edgar and Kaye attribute their success, their rise to financial freedom (and excess), to this business. They had once hit rock bottom when Kaye lost her second child and Edgar was penniless, but Yeshua answered their prayers through this money-making scheme based in Pampanga, operated by Kaye's father. Their testimony is unimpeachable; as such, Edgar (John Lloyd Cruz) and Kaye (Meryll Soriano) excel at what they do. In the first few minutes of the film we see them organizing a birthday party, which later turns into a conference of sorts. People are wary of the consequences: is the offer not too good to be true? Where will the money go? That scene felt real.

We also see that they are followers of local cult called the Church of Yeshua. Every week (Sundays, I surmise), they go to a grand building for worship service. They listen to the Bishop (Tirso Cruz III), who claims he hears the voice of Yeshua, who has told him: gather money and build a grand church building in Manila. The offering containers are distributed, and we learn that Edgar and Kaye have donated Php 150,000 for the construction. He looks like a televangelist, proclaiming a corrupted health-wealth-and-prosperity-gospel, and the only things missing were a TV camera and a cable channel.

Eventually, though, we get the feeling that something is not right. Edgar drives to Macabebe, Pampanga and finds his father-in-law's cold body, in blood and gore, thrown into a marsh. More and more people are coming to the police, demanding that their money be returned. It does not take a while before trouble hits home. One day, we see their Baguio bungalow being ransacked by their clients. These people beat them up. Inside the house, they run amok. Their furniture, appliances, and valuables are stolen from them in broad daylight. Edgar and Kaye, of course, are innocent—they hadn't wilfully lost the investments. Their only mistake is in having been too trusting, not knowing that they have been in the middle of a Ponzi scheme. It was the kind of ignorance that wasn't blissful.

We get the sense that there is more trouble brewing when their daughter is kidnapped, and they are threatened by a couple to produce 6 million pesos or else they die. The family's struggle now becomes that of survival. Edgar, the head of the family, must produce this money, but where should he turn to?

He goes back to Bontoc, his Kangkana-ey roots, to a family he had once abandoned because of his ambitions. John Lloyd Cruz's portrayal of this prodigal son is moving, as he learns that his father, who had once told him never to come back, actually yearned for his return. But Itay is dead, and Edgar has been forgiven nevertheless. We are shown scenes never been shown on Philippine cinema before: inside the mining caves, where their indigenous family have carved out a living. The darkness is almost otherworldly, made realistic by the tireless and incessant tok-tok-tok of the hammer and shovel, interrupted by loud blasts of dynamite. It looked like a screenshot from the underground kingdoms of dwarves (my favorite creatures in the book) in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings.

How he gets the money, saves his family, and wrestles with all the forces that work against him form the core of the film. All in all, it is a beautiful, well-made piece of art in that it showcases the darkness of man's hearts and illustrates that the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10).

The colors are subdued, and there is palpable sadness and hopelessness. For some reason, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian came to mind. The songs that play throughout are breathtaking; sometimes they sound like a whisper, bringing us to thinking deeply, squeezing our hearts and our tears dry, especially Dong Abay's rendition of Ama Namin.

The story is an object-lesson against all forms of greed which can never be satisfied, and it serves as a warning lest we fall prey to false, cultic gospels that offer temporal pleasures instead of eternal ones. God's aim is not to make us rich. In fact, Christians are called to suffer for the gospel. Doubt the church that promises that everything will go well, all your family members will be healthy, all your business will flourish, when you trust in Jesus's name.

Honor Thy Father is a heavy film to watch. Sadness and depression are feelings you will experience, and perhaps it is what it has set out to do. But, as Christians, we must never lose hope: there is redemption, not in money nor in revenge nor in family, but in the true, loving God of the Bible. In Him, hope is sure and it springs eternally.



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