Critically acclaimed ‘On the job’ screens in D.C. from Sept. 27th

Critical acclaim and box-office success

Critical acclaim and box-office success



By Joel David

On the Job” commemorates at least one milestone in the still-evolving narrative of Philippine independent cinema: it is the first digital-era action film to attain the genre’s elusive combination of critical acclaim and box-office profitability, reminiscent of the local industry’s social-realist achievements during the martial law period (roughly the ’70s to the mid-’80s). From my sadly delimited perspective, the project seems to have benefited from a serendipitous confluence of its creative forces, director Erik Matti and co-writer Michiko Yamamoto, each attaining a peak in relatively short careers already marked by several high points.

One measure of the movie’s impact lies in how it has been able to elicit commentary even from Pinoy reviewers who tend to focus on so-called mainstream releases. This is the key to OTJ’s significance as the latest in a still-rare series of independently produced films that fulfill the dream of a community of practitioners who seek to overrun the studio-dominated mode of production and exhibition. Unlike Aureus Solito’s “The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros,” the first digital indie success that turned out to be the exception that proved the rule, all the rest were generically recognizable exercises, notably a pair of comedies (Marlon Rivera’s “The Woman in the Septic Tank” and Jade Castro’s “Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings”) and a melodrama (Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil’s “Voices”). OTJ claims pride of place in being directed at the patronage-shy male audience while accommodating whatever combination of viewers (female, youth, intelligentsia) still manages to sustain theatrical screenings.

In fact the few negative responses to the film dwell on aspects that the movie had no choice but to observe in order to succeed as a genre sample. One might feel that the fact that a woman co-scripted the material might have been nothing more than a stroke of luck for the project, but that would belie the evidence that Michiko Yamamoto was also responsible for the aforementioned Maximo Oliveros and Zombadings, as well as Maryo J. de los Reyes’s “Magnifico”: if one were to imagine the men her fictions focused on, they would proceed chronologically from son to gay son to grown-up sexually conflicted teen, so there would be no reason to expect that she would be unable to deal (entertainingly) with mature conventional men.

What makes OTJ a qualitative leveling up, to use contemporary youth lingo, is not so much its close inspections of father-son relationships (also characteristic of the previous Yamamoto-scripted titles) as the proliferation of dramatis personae representing various social strata and performing diverse conflicting functions. The challenge of rendering these potentially schematic types as recognizable denizens of the urban jungles of Metro Manila was up to the director to realize, and Erik Matti proves himself equal to the task by relying (as Ishmael Bernal before him had been wont to do) on the tension that results from fusing a complex, raging narrative voice with a patient and keenly observed documentarian style, his on-the-prowl camera constantly encircling his major characters the same way that new media (in the form of CCTVs and satellites and camera phones, e.g.) ensure that our private moments might be shared by a voracious viewing public.

The icing on the cake is what probably proved irresistible to mass viewers, who are known to re-watch films that treat them to unexpected doses of pleasure: in OTJ’s case, this would comprise the nearly uniform sterling performances by an ensemble of actors who seemed to have been hungry for the opportunity to shine in sharply drawn characterizations, and proceeded to deliver quicksilver line readings, physically exhaustive maneuvers, and emotionally draining demonstrations.

Actually it was only during a second viewing where I figured out that it was mainly the performances that accounted for an impression that the movie had set out to tackle Oedipal conflicts in a failed state, despite the fact that of the three sets of fathers in the film, the least visible son was the only one biologically related to his dad, an upstanding (and therefore professionally unsuccessful) police officer. The pair of prisoners who get spirited out by their militarily appointed handlers observe a mentor-student relationship (that occasionally has the potential to virtually replace the student’s own parents, as most teachers can attest), while the police detective that the Senate-aspiring general’s campaign manager assigns to cover up a series of messy clean-up operations is actually an orphan “adopted” by his father-in-law, the campaign manager.

If the set-up as presented sounds a mite too complex for a standard-issue actioner, that precisely is the contract the film proffers its media-savvy and issue-starved Pinoy audience, in exchange for headline-worthy acts of violence tempered with unexpected moments of gracious humor. That in itself would be sufficient payoff, but OTJ more daringly builds up its case against the state, where the lowliest character hints at the highest office in the land as implicated in unwholesome underworld skullduggery. The manner in which the father-son tensions are resolved is breathtaking in its cold-bloodedness, yet in both mass-audience and student venues that I attended, the viewers cheered at the end (as foreign-festival attendees reportedly also did).

A less forgiving observer might complain that the movie performs as entertainment machine too successfully, trading on its impressive skills display – and while I imagine that for some viewers that would be reason enough to be grateful, I’d hesitate to judge that desire as wrong per se. But I also think that the exchange between OTJ and its audience goes a bit deeper than that: by regarding the viewer as capable of following story threads as endless and labyrinthine as the alleyways and culs-de-sac that the characters keep navigating, hopeful for whatever reward they believe awaits them at the end, OTJ enables its primary audience to realize how Philippine society and its people are imprisoned in an insurmountable system of exploitation. Thwarted by electoral exercises, appalled by high-level corruption, distressed by the prospect of having to follow other people’s commands just to be able to survive – we are what we witness in this sordid, bloody, soul-crushing, painfully funny portrait of the national condition.

“On the Job,” distributed by Well Go USA Entertainment, screens in U.S. theaters starting September 27. Check out the movie schedules here.

Joel David is professor of Cultural Studies at Inha University in Incheon, Korea. He is the author of a number of books on Philippine cinema and was founding Director of the University of the Philippines Film Institute<
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  1. Hello The FilAm Metro D.C. » Critically acclaimed ‘On the job’ screens in D.C. from Sept. 27th – Very Good

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