Review of On the Job (Erik Matti, 2013)
J. Pilapil Jacobo
On the Job preoccupies itself too much with the techniques of cinema which make “action” a legitimate object of Filipino film that its so-called treatise on Philippine violence barely works even as police reportage. Recent cinema is entitled to its own illusion—that it is intelligent enough to launch a “critique” of establishment, but as far as commentaries are crafted, this attempt is bad writing.
However enervated, the film tracks the Bildung of Mario Maghari (Joel Torre) in his last days as an assassin who eliminates, without deliberation, but with utmost derring-do, enemies of a military general whose grand ambition is to swagger and stutter at the Philippine Senate. I write Bildung (a German word that means “maturation” or “development”) as the story pertains to a life at the cusp of integration into the social or alienation from its space. And I write “last days,” because Mario, the inmate, has been granted his date of release. Two documents signify two stipulations of “freedom” then: 1) the photograph of the target that orders a occasional foray into the “outside” and 2) the parole that sends Mario back into the life before penalty and all manner of privilege projected from the semblance of power distributed to those singled out as deft from among those punished. The rewards of the latter release may be amorphous, far from pecuniary, but it should be worth a shot for Mario, who is still able to hold on to the assurance of an idea or a prospect becoming concrete in spite of its abstraction. The love from a wife and a daughter is a chance to be finally free from mercenary subsistence.
Without a doubt, there is thrill, frisson (French this time), in the demonstration of the ethos that is born and bred from this character who slouches, with de rigeur conviction, toward soulful deliverance. Notwithstanding the temporal promise that is hinged upon the date of release, that calendrical sign becomes a premise to digress into melodrama, particularly the defiles of the domestic lumpen, and into the Bildung of the apprentice Daniel (Gerald Anderson). The writing could have just concentrated on the scenarios which persuade Mario to train Daniel into becoming a death machine, and on the sequences which drive Mario to meet his “social” death on the verge of his reprieve, but a final digression sends the story spiralling into its nadir: a heroic narrative dramatized by lawyer Francis Coronel, Jr. (Piolo Pascual). This is where the thrill becomes cheap; the action that is produced by such titillation is found out as derivative of what has been done in more rigorous,albeit less lustrous lifetimes of the action film. Coronel’s Bildung proposes the figure of the redeemer who is only fulfilled after going through the motions of a naïveté that will be subjected to an epiphany on the crisis of the republican state and revised by a savoir-faire that drives the practitioner of skill to self-destruct in righteousness.
The way Coronel’s deplorable character is essayed sends the film to the pits. Pascual tackles the role as though he had the finesse to acquit himself in the polytropic milieu of a crime scene. He poses and tries too hard to pass as investigator, resorting to musculature, apparel, coiffure, gadgetry, choreography, all manner of gimmickry that his studio allows him to claim just to be legible as suave hero. His hysterical sheen is the film’s principal technical achievement. The gifts of Jay Halili as editor, Erwin Romulo as musical scorer, and Ricardo Buhay III are wasted here. Their sophisticated knowledge of the state of film art has been instrumentalized to conceal the deficiencies of Michiko Yamamoto’s writing, the imposture of Erik Matti’s direction, and the hallucinations of Piolo Pascual’s acting (he is almost endowed with extra-sensory perception when the smoothest of criminals is within a strut away). As far as technical excellence is concerned, On the Job should prove that cinema in these parts has come a long way. And yet, one must call out expertise, when its role is merely prosthetic, dissimulating the offenses of a visual politics whose hermeneutics of suspicion is an ideological chore that “manufactures consent” through the erotic appeal of a hyper-realized metropolis. Ishmael Bernal must be turning in his grave,after that allusion to his “tropical traffic.” The disarray is sensuous, but it does not mark out a sentient cinema complex.
The supporting actors need to be cited for their participation in this folly. There was something facetious that worked for Leo Martinez as the irreverent politician in a forgotten satirical film. None of that comic timing should have been transported into this film. Michael de Mesa languishes as the senator who has invented a philistine lexicon of political savvy. Shaina Magdayao’s exposures can be compared to her sister’s futile campaign to intuit the possibility of an actress in an obscure Viva Films experiment. Angel Aquino is a banshee, but her shriek could have been calibrated by no less than the premier technician of today’s vocal contest (even if she doesn’t have the range to show for it).Gerald Anderson looks and sounds the part of a Filipino American deprived of his Adidas in a Palawan penitentiary. Joey Marquez interprets the ineffectual policeman type along the lines of imbecility. Vivian Velez botches an opportunity to bring the film into noir terrain. One must remind her that wearing black and speaking in a smoky tone are not enough to resurrect the femme fatale image.
Lito Pimentel’s vignette on fear is instructive, a counterpoint to Joel Torre’s opera on the menace that devours all manner of hope in a man who discovers that freedom taken away can never be taken back once one commits to the occupations of violence.
The selection of the film at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes is a travail to the mind. Can sheer technical tenacity elide the most alienated consciousness of crime and punishment in this hapless country? The surface is enthralling, yes, but only because visceral content that is inevitably bloated has been neutralized, if not almost “always already” negated. Such technology of thought can only be savage.
Image source: http://www.lemonde.fr/festival-de-cannes-2013/article/2013/05/25/norte-the-end-of-history-death-march-et-on-the-job-le-cinema-philippin-une-quete-violente-d-identite_3417328_1832090.html