On the Job (Erik Matti, 2013)
In one scene in Erik Matti’s On the Job, Francis Coronel (Piolo Pascual), an investigator who is close to uncovering an assassination ring within the higher echelons of the Philippine government, confronts Pacheco (Leo Martinez), the retired general-turned-politician ringleader. Coronel, with a swagger reminiscent of those imperfect cops on the verge of a bloody redemption that populate the cinema of John Woo and Johnnie To, readies his handgun, oblivious to the fact that he is clearly outnumbered. There is only one of him, and Pacheco has several armed bodyguards. Pacheco, played by Martinez with the alluring charms of a villainous mastermind, lectures Coronel about learning the ropes of corruption and the timeliness of revenge, effectively talking him out of his fatalist plans, thwarting what could have been an impressive gunfight. Without a single bullet let loose, Pacheco walks away, alive and victorious. Coronel remains the jaded hero, wounded not by gunshots by his acknowledgment that he is absolutely powerless against a force of corruption so blatant that there is no more need for subtlety.
Matti’s far-reaching foray into the unchanging state of Philippine corruption is nestled not in the distant but expository tradition that drew for filmmakers like Brillante Mendoza and Jeffrey Jeturian a certain level of acclaim. Matti intelligently pulls away from Brocka’s social realism, leaving the style and purpose to the many Filipino filmmakers who mix their cinema with some level of journalistic purpose. Matti is clearly an entertainer. On the Job is thoroughly enjoyable, replete with scenes and sequences that are precisely conjured to thrill and excite. Underneath the numerous pleasures it generously serves however is an unflinching observation, aptly pessimistic and bleak, of a society that has become oblivious of the decay that has invaded the lowest of its lows and the highest of its highs.
On the Job tells the stories of several players in an elaborate scheme that enunciates the very rotten core of a government that seems to thrive in crime and intrigue. Coronel, an honest investigator who unknowingly marries into a political family with shady connections, ends up with a murder case file conveniently snatched Joaquin Acosta (Joey Marquez), a low-ranking cop who has been slaving on the case and other similar cases for years, with the help of his influential father-in-law. The perpetrators of the murder, Tatang (Joel Torre) and his overeager trainee Daniel (Gerald Anderson), are prisoners whisked away from their cells every time a target needs to be disposed of. Between Coronel and Tatang are various other personalities, loved ones and protectors, all of whom enlarge the risks and stakes.
The screenplay is written by Matti with Michiko Yamamoto, who penned Maryo J. de los Reyes’ Magnifico (2003) and Aureaus Solito’s Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005), all of which are films whose underlying observations on society’s ills are masked in their endearing depictions of humanity’s goodness. On the Job is similarly situated, carrying characters whose moral troubles are only reflective of their insistence on being humans despite a society that dehumanizes them. Tatang is only led to become an assassin due to that glimmer of hope he sees in his wife (Angel Aquino) and daughter (Empress), a hardworking law student. Daniel has an abruptly terminated romance to revive through the earnings and erstwhile freedom provided by his clandestine profession. Coronel, stuck in the middle of a war between good and evil, is guided by the virtues of a father who died a hero. Acosta diverts his attentions from his failed family to his unrewarded work as a police officer. Matti and Yamamoto’s characters are amply motivated. They never resemble soulless symbols, and are instead living and breathing characters driven by believable principles and aspirations.
Matti’s recent films feel like reactions towards trends in Philippine cinema. When the mainstream has caught up with Japanese-style horror, Matti release Pa-siyam (2004), a stylized ghost story that takes the best of the horror trend and properly situates it within a distinctly Philippine setting without being too obscure. When inane fantasies became popular after the successes of Peter Jackson in filming J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous trilogy, Matti teamed up with a local theme park to mount Exodus: Tales from the Enchanted Kingdom (2005), a flawed but ambitious display of Matti’s ability to create spectacle. The increase of films being made outside Manila resulted in The Arrival (2009), his personal ode to hometowns. Rigodon (2012) is Matti’s more sober and more morally complex reply to the slew of films that unduly glamorized marital infidelity.
On the Job seems to be Matti’s defiant contribution to the on-going debate between the Philippines’ commercial and artistic cinemas. With the film, he marries the merits of the two seemingly opposing camps, infusing his sharp social commentaries within a style and aesthetic that suit more mainstream intentions. Evidently, Matti’s risks have paid off. His tireless crusade in developing a filmmaking culture that equally values content and craftsmanship has finally culminated in a piece of work that douses all the doubts and suspicions hounding both sides of the tired debate. On the Job is not satisfied in what pundits consider a safe and viable middle-ground. It opts to simply just move forward, always consistent to an aesthetic that is both true to the filmmaker and not manufactured simply to please a market.