"Hari ng Tondo" is the comeback feature by director Carlos Siguion-Reyna after a self-imposed 14-year break from film making. This is very much a family affair for Siguion-Reyna: his wife Bibeth Orteza wrote the screenplay, while his son Rafa Siguion Reyna and niece Cris Villonco are in the cast. He would say that this story about Tondo is close to his heart as he himself was born there.
This film is one of five entries in the Directors' Showcase category at this year's Cinemalaya film festival.
Ricardo Villena (Robert Arevalo) is on the brink of bankruptcy because of poor investments gone wrong. Despondent, he declares he is willing to sell all his properties in his portfolio to pay off his debts, except for the old apartment building called Alapaap in Tondo, where he grew up from. He wants to return to Alapaap and live there again. He made arrangements with his trusted caretaker Boyong (Rez Cortez) to prepare a place for him.
Villena's grandchildren also have their own personal problems. Anna (Cris Villonco) does not want to marry the philandering guy Mark (Hans Eckstein) whom her mother Olivia (Ali Sotto) wanted for her. Ricky (Rafa Siguion Reyna) would rather create music than finish Economics, the course his father Julio (Audie Gemora) forced him to take. He noted that his two grandchildren could not speak up for what they really wanted. He decided the best way for these youngsters to gain their self-respect or "balls" (so to speak) is for them to stay with him at Alapaap, for at least a while.
Staying in Alapaap immerses the kids into a world they have never experienced before, with the cramped living conditions, unsanitary bathrooms and "pagpag" (leftovers from hotels, restaurants and households) as food. They had to learn to live with neighbors who may or may not necessarily like them to be there, like Ricardo's old flame Felisa (Liza Lorena), the butch musician Raula (Aiza Seguerra) and her gang, the salesgirl Sally (Ciara Sotto) and her gruff security guard partner Vic (Gian Magdangal), and the charming silent guy Emil (Lorenz Martinez). Even Ricardo himself has to adjust and accept that this current situation is already not the Tondo that he knew growing up.
Robert Arevalo delivers a passionate performance as Ricardo. The situations he got himself into may not have been too possible to happen in real life but Arevalo still manages to make them ring true and realistic. He is definitely a contender for Best Actor.
The multi-talented Villonco can really do everything, can't she? She has this talent with her tears, so great on stage in shows like "Ghost," that looked so good on the big screen. Rafa Siguion-Reyna, maybe because he is new, still tend to look ill at ease and self-conscious in his scenes. Their fish-out-of-water scenes were predictable but fun to watch at the same time.
The other supporting cast though also do very well. Whenever Rez Cortez is there, you immediately suspect that he is probably up to no good. Seguerra really fit right into her role -- her voice and guitar playing share the stage with her sensitive acting. Magdangal, also in his first film role, had a sinister screen presence as his role required. That scene when Martinez opens his mouth to speak for the first time is comic gold. (Unfortunately, the joke went on a bit too long.)
One good aspect of this film is the music. Kudos to musical scorer Myke Salomon for his excellent mixing. Two songs stood out: "Eh Ano Kung Pobre?" by Salomon and "Sige Lang ng Sige" by Mike Villegas. The lyrics of all the songs were by Orteza. These songs certainly enhanced the scenes where they had been played, thanks to the soulful renditions by Seguerra.
The harana (serenade) scene where Ricardo sings "Bituing Marikit" for Felisa was very nicely done. Too bad they never showed the songwriting contest that Raula and Ricky wanted to join.
The script dealt with but a slice of what could have been a very interesting cake. We never see nor were we told about how Ricardo grew up in Tondo and how he was able to get out of it. We never saw how Julio and Olivia grew up with their father. All we see is an unfortunate one-dimensional characterization of these children of Ricardo as antagonists, which was a wasted opportunity for getting talented performers like Gemora and Sotto and make them do something so limiting. We never actually get to see how their Tondo experience affected Anna and Ricky in solving their respective situations.
Instead, we get a number of scenes which do not directly involve Ricardo, such as the relationship of Sally and Vic. There was an unexpected awkward sex scene which I felt was not really necessary, and felt unfortunately out of character for those involved. There was the usual poverty porn in scenes showing the severe squalor of the slums, particularly in that very long scene following Ricardo as he was taking a long emotional walk all over Tondo.
Overall, this was a very entertaining film which at the same time tells us a lot about life in the urban slums. The message at the end is loud and clear, dedicated to people who had been successful enough to have moved out of Tondo to give back to it. I guess on a larger scale, the film also exhorts the audience to give back to our country in general. 7/10
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."