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29 August 2013

Erik Matti’s “On the Job” (Review): “Pop Reality”

Erik Matti’s “On the Job” (OTJ) is a skillfully made movie with well-executed action scenes. Matti has always been a master of Hollywood style filmmaking and it is not surprising that “On the Job” will soon be adapted into an American movie in the future.  If South Korea has “Oldboy,” “On the Job” is the closest thing we have, and that comparison is a stretch.  The production value of the film is relatively above average compared to most mainstream Filipino films.  In fact, “On the Job” may actually even resurrect the defunct action movie genre in the country.  The film has all the ingredients of a classic Filipino action movie. It has corrupt cops, unscrupulous politicians, idealistic handsome but conflicted law officers, hired hit men, token beautiful women to star in sex scenes and gratuitous striptease dancers. Nevertheless, “OTJ” is more stylistic and less inane. Matti is obviously in tune with the pulse of the young moviegoers who fancy the likes of David Fincher, Park Chan-wook, and Nicolas Winding Refn. 

From one angle, “OTJ” bravely exposes corruption down the deepest level.  Michiko Yamamoto and Erik Matti’s script adeptly laid out the intricacies of corruption in our many government institutions and the idea that everything is in black and white is a myth. Even do-gooders are flawed and criminals may actually be more heroic than despicable.  The movie tackles what most Filipinos already know. That is—our entire political, military and police systems are corrupt and Manila is one of the best places to commit crime.  The question then is, “so what now?” Sadly, contemporary Philippine cinema is the wrong medium to provide real answers or even the most sincere to ask the questions in the first place.

"The film won the Jury Prize in the 
Puchon Film Festival in South Korea,
understandably so, the film has 
Korean flavor in it."
From another angle, “OTJ” is also littered with celebrity actors, who may have acted quite well, but the A-list casting diffuses the seriousness of the subject matter. The cult of celebrity outshines realism no matter how apparent it may have been presented.  Bottom line, the film is indeed gritty but it is also a “pop action film” in the same vein as Lee Jeong-beom’s “Ajeossi” (The Man from Nowhere) and Luc Besson’s “The Professional."  

“OTJ” was inspired by true events but reality takes a backseat upon careful scrutiny.  By hiring heartthrobs and beautiful celebrities, realism is off the table. The movie is a vehicle for celebrity actors.  Gerard Anderson stands out like a sore thumb wherever he goes.  The Anderson persona did not disappear but his presence is even highlighted because it is just too hard to mask his Caucasian features in the sea of ordinary-looking Filipinos. In reality, can someone as whitey photogenic as Anderson be that desperate for a job?  

Piolo Pascual remains Piolo Pacual, the handsome hunk who looks like a model than a real N.B.I. investigator. His chiseled chest distracts viewers in the best and worst ways. However, the casting is not the flaw of the movie. In fact, it is its strength.  If you read “OTJ” as a brazen commentary on the country’s social ills, then the film will fall short.  The film does not incite viewers into action the same way the Napoles-pork barrel scandal agitate people to protest and demand actions from government.

However, if you interpret “OTJ” as pop celebrity culture’s take on social issues, then it gets its message across.

In the Philippines, public personality, which includes “political, entertainment or media celebrities,” is King and issues are just tools that specific celebrity uses to gain value in society.  To put this in current context, everyone’s eye is on Janet Lim-Napoles, certain Senators, and even on Lani Mercado-Revilla (because of her statement).  On the August 26 Protest in Luneta, many news agencies reported on celebrities who went to the rally than the ordinary angry Filipinos. One news site even has a catchy headline, “Anti-'pork' rally attracts ex-beauty queen, TV host, retired AFP chief.” We love celebrity. That is now part of our culture and this also explains why we elect many movie stars and many politicians have to behave like celebrities in order to gain media value.

May it be incidental or accidental, Matti just crafted a perfect example of how celebrities can be utilized to highlight a social issue but such use inevitably betrays the original purpose. Celebrities get the attention but they also distract and dilute the issues because, in the end, we just remember how lovable, sympathetic, and talented the celebrities are. We forget the real issues.

It is interesting that Joel Torre and Joey Marquez, two actors who actually look like real people, are paired with Anderson and Pascual respectively.  By pairing the mature thespian with the younger celebrity heartthrob, the film reveals its ironic dichotomy. The rugged and jaded characters of Torre and Marquez will win over the beautiful naïve characters of Anderson and Pascual. Without giving much of the story, reality, even if it is partly sacrificed in the film, will annihilate fantasy.  The big question now is: Beyond the well-executed drama, Piolo’s muscles, the sex scenes and the rampant killing, will viewers see the real picture?

Bottom line, "OTJ" is one of those good films whose greatness lies in its unconscious betrayal of the very thing it pretends or sincerely espouses simply because the creators are still part of the system. 

As the film credits rolled, the comment of one young moviegoer summed up everything, “the movie was cool.” Yes indeed, with all the baggage cool carries.

“OTJ” is obviously made to earn money and get international recognition.  Through the eyes of foreigners, this is a badass cool movie so the film will meet its objective.  Through the critical Filipino eyes,  this film is something entirely different.

I recommend this movie.  It has a point and it is entertaining. Just understand what the movie is about so the pleasure will be more genuine. 

Notable Films: Oro, Plata, Mata (1982); Bayaning Third World (2000), Amigo (2010), 
On the Job (2013).   Use of Non-Free Media. Click This
Joel Torre (as Mario “Tatang” Maghari) owns this movie. Period. Torre, along with Bembol Rocco, should be the benchmark of male actors in the country. Period.


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