Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Erik Matti's On The Job (2013)

What may have been just another crime thriller for international audiences, 
actually means and symbolizes so much more to me.

Written in: Calgary, Alberta, CANADA
Composition: Film Review? More like a reaction paper, really.
Previous Post: I learned a new word!

I have never been as excited for a Filipino film as I have been for Erik Matti's On The Job (2013).

In fact, I have never been really excited for any Filipino film - ever.

Growing up in the Philippines, I suppose you could say that I belonged to a class which never viewed Tagalog films as a viable form of common entertainment nor high art (Now, if my usage of the word "class" seems a bit elitist, please understand that I am simply setting up the tone of this entry, where a commentary on class distinctions and divisions is exactly the point). In our household back then, all literature, home movies, magazines, even our daily broadsheet newspaper, were all in English. It therefore followed that my folks generally only spent money on whatever big Hollywood film was grabbing headlines at the time. For us back then, Filipino Cinema was simply basura.

I don't want to put too fine a point into this, seeing as I have talked about this before. Nonetheless, it bears repeating:  
"In no small way, I now believe the wide variety of media I was exposed to as a kid was a preparation for a cosmopolitan and international outlook. A life philosophy not rooted on any nationalistic (Filipino) pretensions but rather a primer to the idea of global citizenship."
It's a little and a lot like Chimamanda Adichie's own story.

Unfortunately, for me, this outlook also perhaps unnecessarily harmed how I rated Filipino Cinema in that I just never gave it a chance. Because although a lot of movies Filipino Cinema churned out back then - and still churns out to this day - are nothing but straight up escapist fare for the masa (masses/general public), once in a while, you do see masterpieces from internationally recognized auteurs such as Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Celso Ad Castillo, and the like. In fact, I would like to say that I do it no justice whatsover by listing a mere three of its most exalted directors. There are a lot of them, you just have to know their material.

Now, it is important that I mention all this because this was how I approached On The Job.


On The Job is the story of an assassin-for-hire conspiracy run by the self proclaimed de-facto rulers of the Philippine Republic. While everyone buys in on the image of a functioning democracy, these shady figures actually control the puppet strings: rigging elections; affecting the outcome of legal proceedings; and even grooming trusted pawns for promotion into high offices. Oh, and let's not forget: Killing anyone who needs killing using prison inmates as assassins.

I had heard about On The Job from Filipino friends and acquaintances on Facebook when they mentioned that it was playing in some international film festivals here in Canada, with Toronto International being the most notable one. A quick Google search then yielded information on how it had also been selected for Cannes.

"Well then", I thought, "If it made it to Cannes, then it must be good!"

Make no mistake, that is as underhanded a compliment as it can get. It means that I may not have believed my friends had they, by themselves, said it was worth watching. Even if I had happened upon the review written on the old broadsheet newspaper my Parents subscribed to, I may still have written it off as just another Basurang Pelicolang Pinoy (Garbage Filipino Movie). That it had been recognized internationally was, to me, the first indication that this Filipino film was worth checking out.

Unfortunately, only now, more than a year after its release, was I able to view it. That I did it through Netflix - perhaps the only Filipino movie in that ever popular on-demand subscription streaming "video store" right now - was, again, quite telling of how far Filipino Cinema had come to be recognized.

I wasn't just watching a Filipino Film, I was watching the first Filipino film to be released in Netflix Canada.

To start with, the first few frames tells me that it is shot digitally (and research confirmed this initial impression - On The Job was shot with a RED Epic). While digital filmmaking has been denounced by Hollywood cineastes and film loyalists as impure and a bastardization of the long lived art of capturing motion pictures via celluloid, digital filmmaking on the other hand, has been widely regarded as having revolutionized Philippine cinema. Beyond the usual advantages of the digital format (instantaneous feedback, freedom from film processing constraints, less setup time required, longer and more takes, etc), it too gave the power of motion picture storytelling to independent filmmakers. Suddenly, anyone who could afford a DSLR camera, a few tripods and rigs, mics and lighting, could now suddenly embark upon something that used to be the sole domain of the big-picture studios. Local independent Philippine film festivals then became a talent pool for Philippine cinema.

So, I wasn't just watching a Filipino movie shot digitally, I was watching the latest product of that digital revolution.

Besides, it's hard to quibble about formats when the resulting imagery is outstanding. The camera work is surprisingly mobile, even in the most confining and claustrophobic of interiors and eskinitas (alleyways), where tracking and steadicam work follow characters as they navigate their domains. For fast paced action sequences, hand held shots up the excitement without succumbing to that increasingly tired jittery cam trope. I must also commend the lighting and subsequent colour grading where they could have easily gone overboard by desaturating and graying out the most depressing scenes. Instead, what you see is a Manila as I remember it during my travels: Colourful and vibrant, even if a little crowded and dirty.

Oh, and I mustn't forget: Staggering divisions between rich and poor.

I wasn't just watching a film set in (Metro) Manila, I was being taken for a tour of the place once more.

While I could scarcely call Erik Matti as a digital guerrilla filmmaker (he is a bit older than someone who fits that bill), a line could nonetheless be drawn from the independent production mindset to how On The Job got made at all. It had not been easy shopping around for financing for this film in the Philippines, where only the aforementioned Basurang Pelicolang Pinoy get backing by big studios. Populated by fleshed out characters, portrayed by actors sometimes acting against their type, following a complicated storyline that is not the usual predictable good vs. bad and good always wins scenario, On The Job was seen as a risky proposition. Which is a bit weird considering it is a bit reminiscent of Michael Mann's superbly crafted crime dramas like Heat (1995), where the good guys are flawed, and the bad guys somehow come off as sympathetic characters. I mean, if they couldn't find financing for something that ended up being this brilliant, then the brainier scripts will forever be tossed around in limbo.

Again, I wasn't just watching a Filipino action flick, I was apparently watching something which does not fit the usual format of action flicks over there. Hopefully, it sparks another revolution in Philippine Cinema where nuanced storytelling and quality filmmaking upstage the tired and old formulas. Just as Marilou Diaz Abaya's Jose Rizal (1998) started a trend of historical epics (Like this, this, and this), I wish for On The Job to ignite a trend where Filipino filmmakers aim to not just please local audiences, but also to capture the international crowd. As Erik Matti himself has proclaimed:
"I realized that getting the local market to react to your film is more gratifying, really. You’ve hit a chord with your audience. With a project like this, something that hasn’t been seen in the Philippines for a while,  it’s refreshing that an audience liked it. It’s overwhelming. We’re happy about it."
Indeed, Filipino filmmakers have been to Cannes before. Filipino films have been lauded internationally, and Filipino directors have made their name in the annals of moviemaking. But having a local blockbuster that can be distributed internationally - that is something that has so far eluded Philippine Cinema. Often, the films that local Filipino audiences love do not translate well to international screens, whilst those that might get recognized overseas have often been loved only by the cineaste crowd who go for arthouse films.


Brillante Mendoza's Serbis played in Cannes, 2008

So a question then arises: "Are Filipino audiences to blame for the state of Philippine Cinema?"  

Honestly, I'm not so sure.

Yes and no, I guess?

On the one hand, it is actually quite admirable how much the Filipino masa (general public) love Philippine Cinema. As I've said elsewhere:
"...more Filipinos (once again, in both absolute and relative terms) simply watch more of their local productions, read more of their local writings, and patronize more of their art. Canadians by comparison, tend to write off Canadian productions as inferior to both American and other Internationally released works."
I may have been elitist against Philippine Cinema as a child (because of my background), but I am now discovering how the Hollywood formula has been largely the same all this time: Make your money with brainless blockbusters, so that you may then fund your arthouse films. This is seemingly the one leap which Filipino studios have yet to really make. All indications point to how they would rather milk the shit out of formats that will be sure to sell locally.

So the answer is "No, Filipino audiences aren't all to blame for the state of Philippine Cinema". You can also blame the studios and producers for not wanting to take a financial risk for some semblance of artistic achievement.

On the other hand, while the masa are responsible for financing Philippine Cinema as an industry, vast swaths of the middle class would have no part, whatsover, in shaping local Philippine art - though they would gladly put it down with intense vitriol. Left brained but politically right leaning academics, engineers, midlevel to upper level management, etc. - basically, all those professionals not otherwise engaged in artistic endeavours, yet nonetheless perform important duties for nation-building - these people have always tended to insulate themselves from Philippine culture. I have met many a conservative Filipino family more conservative and white-bread than actual white-bread, white North Americans. It's almost scary how these white-bread Pinoys have consumption patterns and aspirations more closely approximating Middle America than something you would have expected from the Philippines. But you know the old tale - these are the types who, given the chance, would leave the motherland in a heartbeat for the greener pastures of other lands.

So the answer is also "Yes, Filipino audiences are to blame for the state of Philippine Cinema". There are sectors of Philippine society whose prejudice against Philippine Cinema is so strong, they would never give it a chance. It's all well and good when these types ignore Pinoy films because they feel it is often lacking in production value, good storytelling, and compelling characters. Hell, I ignored Pinoy films for the same reasons! But oftentimes, these types often hurl insults (I could scarcely call them criticisms) without having seen what they are talking about! They lead with their negative presumptions/assumptions, and then go from there.

Besides, it's not as though these elitist types necessarily have more sophisticated sensibilities than the masa they abhor. Check out the movies they throw their money into - they're basically the same repetitive mind numbing crap, just geared for international audiences. For white-bread Pinoys, just because the people onscreen are speaking English, this all of a sudden gives movies a certain aura of sophistication. If anything, these types are to blame for why Hollywood will continue churning out stupid blockbusters. While everyone I know here in Canada has grown tired of Hollywood remaking our childhoods, foreign audiences on the other hand - including the English speaking viewers in the Philippines - would still spend good money on the latest Transformers, Avengers, or Ninja Turtles sequel.

In case it weren't clear, I am basically indicting my old self here - had I grown up in the Philippines, I would no doubt have continued to be as slavish to Western Pop Culture.

Perhaps then, On The Job will be such a game changer that Filipinos who would not have sat in any theatre screening something in Tagalog prior to this, will now have second thoughts the next time someone comes up with the next good Filipino film.

I know that personally, I have never found a relatively straightforward crime drama to be so transformative. I am now, honestly, a changed person after seeing this.

Especially now that On The Job is being remade by Hollywood itself, white-bread Pinoys, snobbish towards anything with a Tagalog dialogue, will be all out of excuses. While the Hollywood version will inevitably have a bigger budget, resulting in higher production values, and better international recognition via bigger promotion, never forget that in this instance, Filipinos came up with the original.

Mabuhay ang Pelicolang Pinoy!



I most definitely have seen many Filipino films. Most of them on TV. Point being, we never spent money on them, be it for theatrical release or home video rentals. 


A Funny Quote:

I don't like these kinds of films. Because it is such a bad influence.. nothing positive and no good lessons are shown to the audience. as though we're only being taught evil and negative values.. and another thing criminals and other bad people here in the Philippines if they saw this they will have a better idea from the show on how to be smart on how to do such crime because this show is for really evil, devilish people. meanwhile the cops who'll watch this will lose all hope when they have to face corrupt higher-ups.. useless damn fucking movie.. you should blame these kind of shows as to why crime in the Philippines is high. Compare it to the USA. china. Etc they always prioritize GOOD INFLUENCE (or good message?) compared to the negative lessons... our shows here? Our shows often prioritize negative lesson or influence.. so much

just check out the USA. Even if they have lots of shows about politics.. THE POSITIVE MESSAGE OF HOW GOOD PREVAILS OVER BAD IS GIVEN BETTER EMPHASIS.. Like james bond.. The borne legacy (sic).. you know what I mean?

To which I then replied:

You're mixing up things here, a lot!

First, James Bond is British. Not from the US...

Second, you are comparing two different Genres. If you've ever cared to watch Crime Dramas and Crime Thrillers like Michael Mann's "Heat" (1995) and "Public Enemies" (2009), or Scorsese's "The Departed" (2006), "Goodfellas" (1990) and the like... you will notice that none of them really have a satisfying ending. This is quite standard in the genre of realistic crime dramas, where sometimes even the bad guys win. Those two things you've pointed out (Bourne and Bond Franchises) are spy thrillers - and not exactly the most artistically profound ones at that! Don't get me wrong, they're great films, but they are far too mainstream. Have you ever seen "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (2011)? Or maybe classic "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" (1965)?  Both are adapted from the work of renowned spy novelist, John Le Carre, and both don't end quite satisfyingly. They're slow, methodical, and utterly utterly cerebral. I must admit, I myself prefer Bond as portrayed by Daniel Craig - especially that last installment, "Skyfall" (2012), where director Sam Mendes did a tremendous job with the visuals. But I do NOT pretend that they are high art!

So, in conclusion: I think you're unfairly criticizing On The Job simply because it is Pinoy made. I am from Canada and I LOVE IT! You should try and be more open minded about the works of your own countrymen. Give credit where credit is due.


PS. I am actually Philippine-born and marunong pa rin magtagalog.


A Note on Taglish:

A reviewer from Austin, Texas wrote:
On a smaller, more nitpicky note, for a movie that’s set in the Phillipines, there are a ton of random moments in which the characters speak in English. And even then, when the English is clear and easy to understand, there are subtitles. A strange stylistic choice, if nothing else

To which I then replied: 
Not strange. It’s realism.

That’s how everyone there speaks nowadays. They call it “Tag-Lish”, or Tagalog English. If anything, the sentences without English words are the ones that sound far too formal for realistic everyday Filipino conversation.

As I said elsewhere online, Filipinos are so quick to adapt foreign words that their everyday language is updated almost on a daily basis. Taglish – its rules unwritten, and its conventions, non standardized. The only way to really learn, is to experience and absorb it.

In some strange twist, I – as a Philippine born Canadian – spoke deeper, more literary, businesslike Tagalog than my childhood friends and family during my first visit there a decade after moving.

It was almost akin to speaking Shakespearean English in Compton. That’s how dorky and beat-uppable I sounded like over there with the Tagalog I retained from formal instruction.


A few other observations:

Compare these internationally released posters for Cannes...
To the "Official" Posters, as well as this one on the DVD/Blu ray Release
Notice how besides flipping Fracis Coronel Jr's image (played by Piolo Pascual), his Beretta 92F in the film has been replaced with a Desert Eagle? He was even given some Aviator sunglasses to complete that "cool" look in the Blu Ray release. While the film was going for gritty realism, the promoters nonetheless wanted to appeal to those who would be amazed by the inclusion of a uselessly heavy and overpowered sidearm for an agent of the National Bureau of Investigation or NBI (kind of like the Philippines' FBI). Because why not? Despite being the lowest earners, the masa have been the biggest customers of Philippine Cinema. "You gotta get them in the seats somehow", the promoter probably figured. Nevermind that in the movie he actually uses the standard issue sidearm amongst police forces and other armed government bureaus in the Philippines, "At least give him something cool for the poster!" they probably thought. Weird, isn't it? Big studios pander to the masa, their biggest market, but also insult them needlessly by underestimating their tastes.

On the other hand Tata Mario and Daniel are always handed a rusty M1911 by the middleman. Very realistic considering the .45 is perhaps the most prolific semi-automatic handgun over there. Not to mention the most widely copied by local gunsmiths.

Photo stolen online.... but I forgot where! Sorry!

A Parent vetting his daughter's boyfriend and subsequent fiance, and then, husband

In the film, the Congressman admits to being involved in the decision making process of whether his daughter should marry someone who is an agent of the NBI, one of the top graduates of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), and the son of a slain Military officer.

That in fact is not so far from the truth: I know someone in the Philippines who was dumped by his girlfriend because her parents figured that he wasn't good enough for their daughter. Now, it wasn't that he was total trash - far from it! He was an engineering graduate who had good taste and good bearing. But noooo, he was not from an influential family like the girl's background. I honestly don't fucking know just how "influential" her family was - whether she was part of the oligarchy, a political clan or someone from engkantasya, because really, who gives a shit? They are uppity, classist, and entirely preoccupied with marrying up... so fuck them! Nonetheless, the sad truth is that parents in the Philippines often have a veto on their child's love life. Parents who have a grandiose and self-important view? Doubly so.

Things that did not work in the story

-Daniel's love life: I honestly could have done without it. I mean, it was ok seeing Diana (played by Dawn Balagot) being nude. But.... it does nothing for the story. There already is a stripclub scene, so I was half expecting a brothel/whorehouse scene - that would have been far more gritty, perhaps even more realistic for someone incarcerated with only the occasional "day pass". I would much rather have seen Acosta's (Joey Marquez) love life. Apparently, his wife is played by the ever beautiful Rosanna Roces - her scene was cut from the international release.

-Daniel's phonecall to his Mom: It has a touch of Filipino racism against Arabs in it, but that's probably realistic since I've heard worse from other Pinoys who have been to the Mid East. Daniel (Gerald Anderson) is faking being abroad, so he probably is just repeating crap he overheard. However, the blocking of the whole scene just doesn't work. The filmmakers probably wanted him to share a frame with his Mom, but he is just too close - you'd think she'd have overheard him talking, just a few meters away.

-The guy whose hat and newspaper is stolen by Daniel in the transit train: He is too complacent. They could have had him complain once, and have Daniel flash his pistol - that would have worked better as to why no one was willing to rat him out to the NBI agent looking for a suspect.

-A proper misfire with a struck primer, but no "bang" because of a defective cartridge should still have seen the M1911's hammer move. Instead, Daniel's pistol still has the hammer cocked throughout that "OMG! My Gun just Misfired!" *click*click*click* "Nothing!!" sequence. Maybe he left the safety on, but that then would have been too stupid of a mistake. A genuine mechanical jam on the trigger mechanism would have made his pistol unusable for the later gunfight that occurs.

Things that were confusing at first, but after some thought, made sense

-Francis Coronel Jr. (Piolo Pascual) is an NBI agent with a law degree. I, as a foreign viewer, was a bit confused why other characters refer to him as "Attorney". I personally would have thought that his current rank as an NBI agent should supersede that degree - thereby making him Agent Coronel. But I guess it's the Philippines, where educational attainment is often used as a status symbol. Besides, it is only really used disparagingly by General Pacheco (Leo Martinez) and Acosta (Joey Marquez), so if anything, they are using it patronizingly. "Ooooh, look'it you! Attorney kingshit!" is what they are seemingly saying.

-When Tata Mario and Daniel return from the first hit that is shown onscreen, they use the excuse of having worked some chores at the Warden's residence (this excuse will be used again, near the end). They only show the warden once or twice, with his involvement with the whole gun-for-hire syndicate not fully fleshed out, though most definitely assumed. And his residence is also not obviously spelled out as either at or next to the prison grounds. I mean, it makes so much sense if that were the case. So, I feel weird saying this as feedback, but I'll have to say it anyway: I wish they were more obvious with this information.

Things that could make for harder viewing for purely foreign audiences

-The second time I viewed this film, I paid attention to the English subtitles to see whether they worked. Not always. Sorry non-Tagalog speakers, but that's just the disadvantage of viewing subs. A lot of meaning is lost in translation. Dubbing makes this actually worse, so, just watch it a second time around, is my recommendation. 

-The future Senator and Congressman's bulletproof vehicle: Someone unfamiliar with the culture of impunity for the rich and powerful in the Philippines may get confused about the Congressman and future Senator's convoy. "They're all armed?" and "Is that a bulletproof  SUV?" they might remark. Yes and yes. Just Google "Bulletproof Cars Philippines" and see what pops up. A LOT. It is almost required for anyone with any amount of power and money over there. 


Next Post: Shopping Mall in Marilao, Part II - Of Slalom Events and Car Culture

Further Reading/Viewing: Cannes: Philippine Cinema Comes to the Fore, Clarence Tsui,
                                                  Hollywood Reporter
                                             The Danger of a Single Story, Chimamanda Adichie, Ted Talks
                                             On The Job: It's 'bitter' in the Philippines, Phillip Cu-Unjieng, Philippine Star
                                             Side By Side, Directed by Christopher Kenneally
                                             Pinoy Film Criticism: A Lover's Polemic, Joel David, The Manila Review
                                             The Situation and directions of Philippine Independent Cinema,
                                                  Francis Sollano, film.culture360.org
                                             In The Claws of the City: Manila in Film, Adolfo Aranjuez, The Manila Review
                                             Interview: Erik Matti of On The Job, Bernard Boo, Way Too Indie
                                             Pinoy Filmfests Circa 2013, Joel David, The Manila Review
                                             Telescoping Empire and Diaspora: Revisiting Philippine-US Dialectics,
                                                  Nicole Cu-Unjieng, The Manila Review
                                             A Damaged Culture: A New Philippines?, James Fallows, The Atlantic
                                             How one Terrible Movie ruined Hollywood, David Wong / Tom Reimann,
                                             5 Hollywood Secrets That Explain why So many Movies Suck,
                                                  C. Coville / Maxwell Yezpitelok / M. Asher Cantrell, Cracked.com

Related Posts: [A Really long story about what it was like to be new to Canada]
                           We All Have Different Fortunes
                           The Godfather's Party   

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