A review of ‘Hari ng Tondo’
What we know of Tondo as rendered in film is in old FPJ action movies, where protagonists can lay claim to lording over it ala Iyo Ang Tondo, Sa Kanya Ang Cavite circa 1986. Recently, ER Ejercito made a killing with Manila Kingpin: Asiong Salonga, where the gangsters of old are made unbelievably sleeker, cleaner, and apparently ageless on film.
It is in the context of these films that Carlitos Siguion Reyna’s Hari ng Tondo (written by Bibeth Orteza) had everything going for it. With an old tired man in Lolo Ricardo (Robert Arevalo) in the lead, it was setting the tone for a different Tondo story, one not bound to these dominant mainstream archetypes. Faced with bankruptcy, he decides that the one piece of property he will not sell is where he should be. He should go back to his beginnings in the purgatory of Tondo—that building called Alapaap.
The movie layers that task with a mission: Lolo Ricardo wants to leave his two grandchildren with some balls. Tondo is the place to get them that.
The personal crises that would bring Anna (Cris Villonco) and Ricky (Rafa Siguion Reyna) are textbook rich kid problems: overbearing parents who trap kids in expectation. One forgives this simple subplot, including Ricardo’s children being the kontrabidas here, because these are not the point.
The point being Lolo Ricardo going home to Alapaap in his twilight years, and realizing—too slowly—that he had neglected to fulfill all promises to make life better there. Alapaap has no water, units are badly maintained, toilets are dirty. The building’s congested, and the community’s poorer. He and his grandchildren realize too late that they’ve been eating pagpag. There is petty crime and violence abounds.
Lolo Ricardo repeats it often enough: this is not what Tondo used to be. Yet he does not wax nostalgic. He is put in his place by old friend and Alapaap caretaker Badong (Rex Cortez) through simple acts of deception, and the old man unravels with finger only pointed at self. Even the arson on Alapaap does not bring Lolo Ricardo to demand justice; instead it was opportunity to reconsider the idea of change, and the lack of it in a place like Tondo.
Certainly the wealthy getting some balls by trying poverty out is riddled with notions of guilt. That it’s fodder for comedy here seems to be this film’s undoing; it’s easy to think the discussion about poverty and need shallow.
I tend to think that a particular audience that will not even look in the direction of Tondo, might for the first time sit and watch a film about it. The question of whether or not this discusses poverty in depth misses the point; because this is a story about a tired old man who has not forgotten his beginnings, but also does not know it anymore. It is about a community that persists and survives despite this forgetting. That this movie is able to show the dirt and grime here, the oppression and poverty, even with the voice of the privileged, is a feat in itself.
But we have a local audience that’s quick to judge films about the poor to be poverty porn, and films about the middle class to be shallow and superficial. That Hari ng Tondo does not cross this line between these two kinds of films, and instead stands quite steadily on that line—insisting that there is a story to be told right there—is its daring. That an audience might think it too commercial, and too superficial—that it will not be “critically acclaimed”—is our own failing.
We get the movies we deserve.