Edgar (John Lloyd Cruz) and Kaye (Meryll Soriano) are a hard-working couple trying to maintain a solid middle-class life through faith and social networking among the people that follow the church of Yeshua. They have a spirited daughter, Angel (Krystal Brimner), who does not hesitate to fight back when someone pesters her at school, but a good daughter nonetheless; a house spacious enough to provide for their daily comforts and also to entertain bigger dreams of more money; and a good standing among the religious social circle in which they move, propelled above all by Kaye and her fervent, unquestioning religiosity. Such things are well-deserved, as Kaye recounts to her co-parishioners early in the film the series of hardships (emotional and financial) that she and her family had experienced prior to a year ago after moving to their current location of Baguio, a city in central Luzon. Such a turn in fortune has been largely driven by her father’s investment scheme, in which she believes so wholeheartedly that she convinces a number of her Yeshua friends/colleagues to contribute to it.
Belief is ultimately the operative word here that unites the parallel thematic threads of religious faith and capitalist worship, both of which become corrosively undermined as the film unfolds. What could have easily been exploitation elements when Kaye’s father is found dead and other people’s money disappear, thus prompting them to commit increasingly menacing tactics against Edgar and Kaye to get their money back, are rendered into a suspenseful work lined with biting social commentary. On paper, that it begins as a home drama, morphs into a father-daughter journey, and then shifts into a kind of heist-like mode makes it seem confused. But under the helm of Erik Matti — perfectly at home making low-budget indies, genre films with twists, and heavily commercial fare alike — with a script by the prolific Michiko Yamamoto, and anchored by an exceptionally intense yet subdued performance by lead actor Cruz, Honour Thy Father is a concentrated, measured descent into the darker aspects of what drives/provokes belief.
One of the more extended sequences early in the film, before Kaye’s father’s murder, is set inside the church of Yeshua and serves as a blueprint for one type of belief. Bathed evenly in soft, yellow light, Bishop Tony (Tirso Cruz III) intones a heated sermon. The effect is infectious, as the whole church responds in body, mind, and money to his exhortations of faith, love, and donations for the construction of a new church in Manila. Yet in the midst of such fervour among the churchgoers and Bishop Tony, expressed in song and speech, the camera registers all too clearly Edgar’s lack of belief, his body and head rigid with such lack, all the more striking in a sea of bent or swaying bodies gripped by religious ecstasy. Such an individualistic, non-conforming stance in retrospect characterises Edgar, in the face of what befalls his family: his wife’s blindly trusting faith (in the church); the progressively lynch mob-like threats thrown at him and his family by their church colleagues, in the name of their lost money, from ransacking their home, beating him up senseless, to kidnapping Angel and then Kaye in the course of the film; the challenge of protecting his family at all costs; and the greedy selfishness of the church of Yeshua in answer to their pleas for a loan. The irony of the aforementioned sequence in the church of Yeshua followed by lynch mob actions by the very same people who attended that frenzied church service is all too apparent, in large part because the motivation compelling both sets of action is all too apparent: money.
Edgar thus becomes witness to his family getting torn apart by such a maddening belief in money (as solution, social glue, reason for being), yet he is the only levelheaded one who can take action and try to put a stop to it all. And through the unlawful means by which he does try to set things aright again, the film reveals the corrupting, hypocritical nature that can so easily come to underwrite belief. Locked between an unforgiving church when it comes to sharing its money and a wife who can neither confront her responsibility for what is happening nor take a critical look at her faith and the object of it, Edgar is continuously pushed beyond his limits while their daughter Angel suffers in the process. All the more powerful and sensitive, then, is the scene about midway into the film between Edgar and Angel when he speaks to her about the law of life — survival of the fittest — and shaves his head as an emotional gesture of solidarity with Angel (whose head has been shaved by those who had kidnapped her). This father-daughter bond is one of the most touching aspects of the film, and adds an emotionally sobering hue (instead of a melodramatic one) to a situation that becomes more and more surrealistic. This scene, too, gives way to a shift in tone in some ways that is both realistic and lyrical, and one of the most memorable in the film.
Though already notches above a torrid melodrama, when Edgar and Angel make the trek back to the former’s hometown, where his mother (played by veteran actress Perla Bautista) and his brothers live and work, the film rises further in stature as a psychosocial dissection. Like a variation on the father-daughter scene, the mother-son scene when Edgar opens his heart to his mother about what is happening is shot and performed in a restrained but emotionally effective manner in the midst of the madness that is swirling around Edgar’s shoulders. Furthermore, the campfire scene of the family meeting to discuss what Edgar can do and what he needs from his family is beautifully lit, equally restrained but dramatically palpable. Further linking the father-daughter, mother-son bonds is that while the family is dominated by Edgar and his brothers, the family head is a matriarch and Edgar’s determination to preserve his family is driven above all by the desire to give his daughter the opportunity to have a choice in life.
Indeed, the underlying premise remains constant: a father doing what he can to save his family. But the last third of the film operates in a heist/prison escape mode concocted by Edgar and his brothers. Just as in Rififi (1955, dir. Jules Dassin) or Le trou (1960, dir. Jacques Becker), a number of sequences run without dialogue, the camera content to observe the step-by-step process of forging an underground, clandestine path to a money stash that would pay back the loss of other people’s money.
One could get angry at Edgar and Kaye’s church colleagues for their re/actions to their lost money. But the film does not demonise them, does not give them enough screen time to allow it to happen. The real antagonist is the corporatisation of belief, of which the church of Yeshua is guilty. Near the end, shots of people jumping in the river because they see money floating in it visually express such corporatisation, a baptism gone awry.
Honor Thy Father is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Saturday July 2 at 8:15pm at the Walter Reade Theater. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.