On the Job (Erik Matti, 2013) September 12, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
Written by Michiko Yamamoto and Erik Matti
Directed by Erik Matti
Cast: Joel Torre, Piolo Pascual, Gerald Anderson, Joey Marquez
The hype surrounding On the Job confirms that a sizeable fraction of Filipino moviegoers, contrary to popular belief, is not in front of a display window looking for something good: it is on an island waiting for rescue. This audience, whose taste in cinema is diverse and self-assured, is a proud bearer of positive news. Any hint of deliverance, whether it’s the sound of a moving object or a slight change of light, suggests emancipation, and the timing and technical skill of On the Job happen to fit the mold it has in mind for years.
In light of the issues confronting the country at present, the film’s resonance is impossible to overlook. The association between the social unrest it depicts and the impassioned reviews is persuasive, but it also has a tendency to magnify its actual merits. Clearly, On the Job is a far cry from Sister Stella L. and Orapronobis—both movies carried out under a strong political climate, their stories depicting a deeply rooted struggle, their sentiments continuing to echo with fear—but director Erik Matti does not envision his film to be either, and that decision works somehow in his favor.
There is no denying that Matti is not keen on insights: he is more concerned with viewer interest. He is after amusement, that delight of seeing pleasure in the faces of his audience as he gets away with his smoke and mirrors. His fascination with genres over the years has served as an inadvertent preparation for this—from action and horror to fantasy and erotica, he understands the tropes and squeezes entertainment out of them—and On the Job not only marks a turning point in his career: it also becomes his status symbol.
The shower of praises it receives, however, implies a certain misguidance—a misreading of Philippine cinema’s condition, quite similar to a doctor prescribing dentures to a patient with a healthy set of teeth. Most of the manic reviews speak of banalities and fall short on describing the virtues of the film. Worse, they raise alarming concerns. For example, why does faith in Philippine cinema being restored turn up? Why do some people take pride in disliking Star Cinema releases yet when a decent one comes about, they make it a point to express full ownership of it, loudly and smugly? Why is On the Job—a passable prison drama, a passive political picture, and a telling thriller with impressive splotches of hardboiled noir—being deemed a manna from heaven? What is the point of using it to decry and invalidate other local movies?
One argument hardly raised, which is probably the most pertinent as far as the current state of Philippine cinema is concerned, is that there exist (and there have always been) worthy movies outside Cinemalaya. They are few but they are being made. Demonizing Star Cinema and the Metro Manila Film Festival is easy, but gray areas such as grant-giving bodies that do good and cause harm at the same time are given the benefit of the doubt, rarely argued, and left untouched. On the Job has taken years to complete and has been to hell and back, amid all the logistical nightmares and financial risks involved, but it only goes to show that it can be done and it’s realistic to set high expectations.
Needless to say, its centerpiece is its brazenness. It creates a picture that never for once looks like it needs any help, leaving the viewers with an impression of freedom and luxury. It holds them by the neck and steer their emotions to one specific route. What Matti does is untighten the screws in succession, first the ones in the corners and then those in the middle; but along the way one screw refuses to be undone, and that’s where the narrative stores some surprises, unleashing them slowly in the final act, the characters finding themselves on a dead-end street and between concrete walls.
A second viewing of it highlights the buildup of relationship between the two hired killers. The result of such development is rather strange, for the death of one of them is less striking than the death of the character pursuing them, the latter creating a fork in the road while the former coming across as something supplementary, like a whimsical afterthought. As the second death is revealed, the impression made by the first is still there, and the effect of how it wraps things up feels slight. Writers Michiko Yamamoto and Matti may have anticipated this effect, hence their footnotes show eagerness in establishing a resolution through a grand gesture, owing to the genre’s requirements.
There is also a special significance attached to the no-nonsense parade of grit, emphasized by the urban setting. Manila exudes so much flavor that the story would hardly make a dent in the viewer without it. The geographical dynamics slides on the glossy surface and leaps from it, making room for a lot of pursuit and gunshots that never feel out of place, the elements in the backdrop rearranging themselves surreptitiously. On the Job’s finest moments are those that allow the city, specifically the culs-de-sac and buildings occupying it, to create necessary distractions and participate in the action. Should one pay attention to the stylish enactment of its major sequences—the shootout in the public hospital, the chase at the train station, and the gunfire outside Manila City Hall, not to mention the evil pair of rain and traffic being indifferent to everything—one feels a spark of splendor, a momentary blanket of thrill, as these scenarios are seldom captured in local movies. Seeing them onscreen causes a sudden jolt, like the taste of hot sauce in a slice of five-cheese pizza, waiting to be acknowledged as they hit the senses, strong and aching for water.
Putting more emphasis on its technical proficiency is the manner in which the production design of Richard Somes rounds out the camera work of Ricardo Buhay, particularly in bringing to life a prison built from scratch. Buhay does justice to Somes’s meticulous visual details, showing the gracelessness of objects left to smear on their own, uncared for and unwashed, unacquainted with social order like the inmates around them. The narrative moves forward confidently because Buhay and Somes are able to make the tone of the film consistent, the exterior and interior sequences achieving fluid transitions. Furthermore, the tracking shots do not feel like decorations; they create a pleasant contrast with all the shooting and running, the camera looking for an angle of attack and finding it, surprised at its own discoveries.
Young Critics Circle member J. Pilapil Jacobo, in the lead of his review, thinks that “On the Job preoccupies itself too much with the techniques of cinema which make ‘action’ a legitimate object of Filipino film that its so-called treatise on Philippine violence barely works even as police reportage.” What makes this argument regrettable is the presence of valid arguments that fail to register because they are not substantiated in the remainder of the essay. The preoccupation with techniques is true, but in defense of On the Job, irrespective of how its pack of supporters tries to make sense of its relevance, there is never an instance in the movie that suggests it’s a “treatise,” that it’s purposely making a grand statement on sociopolitical issues. In fact, it’s a film whose consciousness of its nature is obvious—“I’m a fucking movie, goddammit!”—and above all else, Matti has not veered away from his personality: he remains a filmmaker inclined to work on formulas and make a compelling picture out of them, by hook or by crook.
On the Job may not be “intelligent enough to launch a ‘critique’ of establishment,” but at this point, when the arts have most likely reached their most dramatic peak and society has seen its best and worst people and experienced its nastiest nightmares, isn’t it reasonable to suppose that intelligence, the boon and bane of human existence, has been prized too highly all these years? Is it unfair to presume that the kind of cinema that bears fruit is not conscious of what it can do for its people but one that is aware of its limitations and acknowledges them? On what condition can criticism not just be content with complimenting but also complementing a national cinema?
It’s a frustrating ball game when the need arises to distinguish art from entertainment for the sake of favoring the former, some people forgetting that entertainment is in fact an art: a discipline that follows a set of aesthetic principles for it to succeed, making use of skills and techniques to deliver its desired effect. It’s unfair to look down on it as a form of expression just because the gratification it offers is deceptive, and a judgment is not any less convincing or credible if enjoyment, no matter how short-lived it may be, is used as a focal point of critical discussion. The main weapon of On the Job is its unapologetic preference for action, its clear-cut view of crime and redemption, and its apparent lack of disguise. Gunmen don’t talk nonsense when they are being cornered, the police arrive when there’s still something else to do, Manila stinks when it rains. There is nothing tricky about it, so one must not overrate its own sense of importance, or belittle its plain straightforwardness.