by Pablo A. Tariman

There is much to appreciate in Carlitos Siguion-Reyna’s “Ang Hari ng Tondo” aided as he is with a meaningful script by Bibeth Orteza.

The film opens in the now muddled corporate status of Ricardo Villena (Robert Arevalo) who is facing bankruptcy as per business briefing of his son-in-law ( Eric Quizon) who didn’t expect his father-in-law to go back to his roots with his grandchildren (Cris Villonco and Rafa Siguion-Reyna).

Scene from "Hari ng Tondo." From Forbes Park to Tondo with love.

Scene from “Hari ng Tondo.” From Forbes Park to Tondo with love.

The film gives us a quick and easy ride to Tondo where we find Villena’s crowded tenement house called “Alapaap” (clouds). This building he holds dear as it is one of the early properties he acquired when the going was good. Even his katiwala (Rez Cortez) is shocked by his decision. But he couldn’t do anything but bow to the wishes of his employer – strange and unthinkable as they are to him.

Without much ado, the director gives us scenes from the present day Tondo starting with the appalling state of the building to the uncanny profile of the unpredictable neighborhood. Meanwhile, the grandchildren make do with bathrooms that had seen better days and since they made a pact to stay with their grandfather through thick and thin, they patiently hang on as they get to know the distant past of the patriarch. They met this lively, if, rowdy singing group led by Aiza Seguerra who delivers stinging lines on what makes a good song to the shock of aspiring composer played by Rafa Siguion-Reyna.

Aiza Seguerra: a natural as lover and song writer.

Aiza Seguerra: a natural as lover and song writer.

While the lead character is victim of reversal of family fortune, some neighbors look like willing victims of their relationships. Ciara Sotto plays the role of a battered woman who has a live-in relationship with a perennially sex-hungry security guard (Gian Magdangal). The grandkids also get to know more of the neighborhood including the apple of their grandfather’s youthful eyes, Felisa played by Liza Lorena. They join their grandfather in an old style courtship called harana (serenade) singing Nicanor Abelardo’s “Bituing Marikit” apparently to get the attention of an old flame.

What they get for their effort is a metaphor of how timeless Filipino songs are largely ignored by a new generation hooked on iPods and the internet.

One figures that this film will appeal to the young with scenes of Tondo shenanigans played out by good acting ensembles all in the spirit of fun.

When granddaughter (Villonco) falls for Tondo neighbor (Lorenz Martinez) who turns out to be a ngongo (one with speech defects), the moviegoers were rolling on the floor with the superb comic timing of the actor.

How some poor Tondo folks live and what kind of meals they thrive on can shock the weary of stomach specially the enactment of the “pagpag” scene (it has nothing to do with a superstition related to the dead).

All at once, we see a film contrasting life in high-rise condominiums in Makati and a life of squalor in Tondo.

Actor Robert Arevalo: his acting was  virtual tour de force on the life and times of Ricardo Villena.

Actor Robert Arevalo: his acting was virtual tour de force on the life and times of Ricardo Villena.

It is also a tale of noble virtues now gone and a tale of a patriarch lost in the winner-takes-all corporate game. As the camera pans on what has become of Tondo, scriptwriter Orteza gives us an idea of who the original Tondo kingpins were: not the gangsters and famous ex-convicts but the original village chieftains who fought the invaders during the arrival of the colonizers.

By turns, the film shocks as it leads us to the unspeakable side of Tondo. On the other hand, it is not short on entertainment as we see life in the city jungle contrasting sharply with the great unwashed. Here we see the so-called well-bred (and cunning) interact with the naïve and the natural (and easy prey). There are familiar refrains on living and loving (you have to fight for your love even if the recipient of that affection turns out to be cleft palate) and themes from Thomas Wolfe’s “You can’ go home again.”

The acting ensembles deliver from the singing group of Aiza Seguerra to the corporate cluster of Quizon and Audie Gemora to the street characters acting out games Tondo people play. Seguerra acts out her role with more than a dose of reality and humor, Rez Cortez (as Boyong the tenement in charge) is infinitely real showing off the character’s good and vulnerable sides. Martinez (the neighbor with cleft palate) had his short but highly memorable moments, Lorena and her silent partner give moviegoers a mild shock at the end of the film. Villonco deserves her best supporting actress trophy while Rafa shows a big promise with his natural screen presence.

There is no doubt Robert Arevalo as Ricardo Villena gave a portrayal that was both sensitive and in quick succession of frames — thoroughly stunning. His monologue with the dregs of Tondo in the background is at once deep and riveting and full of lost symbols. There is a bit of all of us in his character and in this film, he made it a symbolic of the once and future Tondo.

This is another refreshing Carlitos Siguion Reyna output with a heart and he found a perfect collaborative partner in the insightful screenplay of Orteza.

“Hari ng Tondo” opens October 1.

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