Film Review: Eric Matti’s “On the Job”

One word to describe Erik Matti’s 2013 crime flick “On the Job” would be “prescient,” considering that it was released a good three years before the current Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, took office. Amid stories of government-sanctioned hit squads killing off dope dealers and drug kingpins, Matti’s film about inmates being used as assassins by power-hungry politicians just seems old hat.

That’s not to say that “On the Job” isn’t a good film. On the contrary, Matti’s expert hand – the man’s filmography stretched to 17 directorial efforts before he helmed this work – is that of a pro, his deft visual acuity matched only by his strength as screenwriter and storyteller.  With just a small fraction of the budget that a typical Hollywood thriller would be afforded, the director utilizes the limitations set before him to make a very smart, provocative, and nihilistic crime film.

“On the Job” was inspired by a story that a member of Matti’s crew told him while shooting a picture a decade or so ago. That crew member had just gotten out of prison and had been paid to do hits for some easy cash, $120 a kill.  The most remarkable part of the story was that the hits were not inmates. The man had been let out of jail to kill his target, and before anyone could be the wiser was spirited back into the safety of his cell. The anecdote instantly caught Matti’s attention, but it would take several years and several drafts of the screenplay before shooting could begin.

Once “On the Job” finally premiered at the Director’s Fortnight section during the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, it rose above the clichés and low budget aesthetics that have plagued the Philippine film industry.  The film focuses on an unlikely pair of killers, Mario (Joel Torre) and Daniel (Gerald Anderson), with Torre as the wizened elder to Anderson’s loud braggadocio Daniel. Torre specifically has to be commended for the way he subsumes into the role of Mario, a fatherly character with an ability to blend into the crowd and repress anything resembling a conscience.  On the other side of the law, Piolo Pascual plays do-gooder Attorney Francis Coronel, Jr., whose family connections inadvertently have him wrestling with the merits of loyalty in contrast to the duties of his job. However, as good as Pascual is in the role of Coronel, the character is too much of a white hat, his naivety about Philippine politics and his simplistic worldview clashing with Matti’s gritty chiaroscuro world.

The centerpiece of the film, a 10-minute chase scene that begins at a hospital and moves outwards through traffic-clogged streets, a cramped subway car, and a tetanus-ridden warehouse, should be studied in film editing classes for the way Matti, his editor Jay Halili, and the director of photography Francis Ricardo Buhay III utilize tried and true techniques to build suspension and thrills, all while not making short shrift of the action.

“On the Job” might have a gritty visual aesthetic, but it is light years away from the poverty porn that gets made and dropped into film festivals these days.  Even in a low budget project comprising mostly outdoor scenes, Matti never places his camera in a haphazard position. Matti and his set dressers turn the urban locale into something more than just a monochromatic version of filmed reality. The slums are not the primary colors of the film, the interiors of houses speak so much of who the characters are that live there, and the towering mansions and government buildings that offer an ironic counterpoint as the symbols of truth and justice are controlled by crooked men.

“On the Job,” along with Marlon Rivera’s “The Woman in the Septic Tank” (2011), did a lot in the early 2010’s to bring Philippine cinema into the discussion.  These works showcased a country that was vibrant and filled with talented artists whose knowledge of film was matched only by their desire to make cinema. Without Matti’s film, the renaissance of crime and action films that has been popping up in Philippine theaters and TV screens lately would never have existed. Matti understands filmmaking and “On the Job” proves it.

“On the Job” screens at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York as part of the “A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema” series.  The next screening takes place Sat., June 17, at 4:15 p.m. at The Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters T2.  Tickets can be purchased at moma.org.