Honor Thy Father begins with a shot of the protagonist Edgar (John Lloyd Cruz) breaking the ground in a lawn in the Cordilleran highland city of Baguio. It is foreshadowing, both in a visual sense as Edgar later in the story breaks into a different territory with his brothers, and on a metaphorical level, as he would in the course of the story break and shake up his relationships, with people and with the land.
The setting maintains a strong, and beautiful, presence throughout the film. Baguio subtly comes to represent both the hopes of his family, and the instability and chaos they find themselves facing. Edgar’s wife, Kaye (Meryll Soriano), at one point talks about going to the mountains to escape their problems (a genius bit of characterizing detail, because for most Filipinos who live in lowlands, Baguio is a mountain city, and only highland urban residents would talk of going further up the mountains). Edgar does travel to still-higher and remoter lands of the Cordilleras, where he seeks his parents and brothers for help; his brothers, meanwhile, make a living as miners, blasting their way deeper into the mountains in search of minerals. In Honor Thy Father, the rolling urban terrain is a symbol of conflict; the dusty mine lands, of refuge and strength.
Cruz delivers a laudable, career re-defining performance as Edgar, a deeply conflicted father whose restrained strength early in the story eventually develops and flares into morally-ambiguous determination. He commits dark acts when forced to defend his family, cornered by violence and corruption. He is the well-played center of a cast that includes many characters consumed by greed, bound by blood, or misled by faith.
The film’s commentary on fanatical faith is particularly chilling. The charismatic Bishop Tony (played by a convincing Tirso Cruz III), displays religious resolve when he forgives a character who earlier assails him out of frustration; and yet, as he speaks of the Devil and temptation, he unknowingly later provides the great opportunity for sin. (Viewers have linked this particular theme of the film to the recent issues hounding the Iglesia ni Cristo, though the religious organization portrayed in the film is clearly fictional and the filmmakers have said that they shot the movie before the issues erupted in July 2015.)
Overall, it is useful to compare Honor Thy Father with 2013’s On The Job, which was helmed by the same director-writer collaboration between Erik Matti and Michiko Yamamoto. Both films seem to have been written around a particular method of crime, and are executed well on a foundation of strong acting, good action and masterful pacing. Honor Thy Father has the additional distinctions of visual appeal, and a thematically-rich, emotionally more powerful story.
The film premiered internationally at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, then locally at the 2015 Cinema One Originals Festival. It had its first commercial run while in competition at the 2015 Metro Manila Film Festival, where as of writing it is embroiled in a disqualification scandal, barring it from the Best Picture category (Rappler: ‘Honor Thy Father’ disqualified from MMFF 2015 Awards Best Picture category). A very unfortunate incident for the highly-commercialized MMFF, which has failed to produce quality movie for so many years. (With some notable exceptions: Brillante Mendoza’s Thy Womb, 2012, comes to mind, and although excellent, it is a difficult film and was alienating for the MMFF audience.) Films of accessible quality like Honor Thy Father is what it desperately needs to truly break new ground.