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Nobility and Degradation: A Conversation on On the Job

21 Sep

This exchange, begun in the interest of exploring a different format for evaluating films, was conducted from September 4 to 14, 2013 via e-mail. The messages were then compiled into a single document, edited, and sent to the participants for review before posting.

The goal of this exercise was not so much to form a consensus, but to bring to the surface observations, questions, and concerns that the participants, as well as the various audiences of On the Job, could think through and about.

For readers who have not watched the film, what follows contains spoilers.

on-the-job

Tessa Maria Guazon

Taking off from our after-dinner chat last night, I initiate the thread on Erik Matti’s latest film, On the Job [henceforth OTJ]. I watched it on opening day and was initially thrilled by the idea of Gerald Anderson being cast in the role of a prison inmate. And who can ignore such a film, when my television news screen was peopled by the many versions of a beaming Anderson?

Anyhow, let us get the conversation going.

As I recall, we agreed that the merits of OTJ were its superb editing and sound design, but Jason sharply noted that its screenplay was its biggest flaw. I found discomfiting OTJ’s “sleekness”; the title for the review I have yet to write is “The Lures of Sleek”. The apparent gloss is what made it tick, yet it was also what made it weak. And the biggest fissures were in terms of narrative and characterization.

JPaul was right to note the sudden revival of action films, but compared to those from the eighties, the current spate of mainstream action films are inherently flawed. JPaul, can you remind us again why you said this? I think this can lead us to the comic presence of Piolo Pascual’s character, the wisp that was Shaina Magdayao’s OTJ persona, and even the contentious appeal of Joey Marquez’s hardened police officer.

Thinking back on the melange of the big-name actors: it reminded me strongly of Hollywood or NYPD dramas!

Jaime Oscar Salazar

I saw the film last night. The visual and aural aspects are what drew me in—it is indeed slick and sleek—but in the wake of the thrill, I found the screenplay, despite its intriguing premise, rather inept. The characters are generally badly developed; the attempt to provide expository information on all of the main players has a flattening effect. Also, many of the events are simply unable to withstand logical scrutiny.

The performances of Joel Torre and Joey Marquez are noteworthy, but everyone else was miscast, or had poorly written parts, or both. Considering the size of his role, Gerald Anderson was particularly grating in my view. His playing eager puppy to Torre’s battle-scarred wolf lacked the grit and the hunger that I would expect from someone who has presumably been imprisoned for a long enough period to establish his potential as a hired gun. That there is a training sequence, which includes lessons on jailbird decorum, is just one example of the poor writing; shouldn’t Torre have tutored Anderson in all these areas even before the latter started coming along as back-up on assassination assignments?

Tessa Maria Guazon

Thanks for the sharp insights, Jay!

Jason has crafted a beautifully written review; I think he plans to post it today.

Indeed, such sleekness is intriguing. It can even be riveting. However, such surfaces may also appear lifeless, even dead. Donald Kuspit makes a similar observation of hyperrealism in contemporary art.

Yet the very same forms are alluring for some reason, and I must admit there is ambivalent joy in cruising along such surfaces. I am intrigued by the affect birthed by this motion—viewing/cruising, skimming the film image.

Jay says he was “drawn in”. Did anyone else feel the same about the film?

JPaul Manzanilla

First, the slickness/sleekness: “sleek” is always a come-on in the action genre. It makes violence attractive and, more importantly, worth doing in the pursuit of justice. Indeed, the gloss of guns, cars, and the manners of enacting crime are material pictures of the hired gunman’s professionalism. These are not his resources, though, but his bosses’ (the “bosses” in this country as stated by Leo Martinez’s character)—the latter provide the polish, the sleekness in the enactment of crime. Still, they just give the raw materials but it is Joel’s character’s intelligence and efficiency that craft the sleekness. There is a class divide in this making of sleekness. The smoothness of the politician’s image is superficial—slick, relying on the hard and cruel labor of the hired gunman.

We need to attend to this sleekness because the materiality of the image is its meaning. Had the film shown at considerable duration the political economy of its violence, we would have gained a significant moral benefit from it. Sadly, the politics was just that, politicians, and the economy we had was the transaction between the politicos and the gun-for-hire prisoners and the diffusion of financial benefits to their families. Aside from sending allowances to their families, do Torre’s and Anderson’s characters invest in the future, of a life possibly without crime?

Tinatanong ko ito kasi ang character ni Joel Torre ay lalaya na, kaya kailangan niyang tantiyahin kung irereporma pa ba niya ang sarili. Sana naipakita pa nang maigi ito. Kapani-paniwala naman na makapapatay siya dahil sa pangangaliwa ng asawa, pero puwede naman silang mabuhay nang maayos ng anak niyang nag-aaral maging abogado, bilang kalaban-kakampi ng mundo ng kriminalidad na kinapapalooban nila.

Was the choice to remain a murderer for such a calculating man brought about by the emptiness, the hopelessness, outside of the prison, in the real world where he is not simply a hired killer anymore but subject to the degradations and nobility of normal life?

Wala kasing nobility sa paggawa ng karahasan. Sa mga pelikulang bakbakan, igagalang mo ang ibang gumagawa ng krimen dahil ginagawa nila ito para sa kanilang mga pamilya, na temang Pilipino naman talaga. At dapat ipinakikita na wala na silang mapagpilipilian, kaya ginawa nila ito. Hindi ko naman sinasabing dapat maging squeaky clean (again: glossy/sleek) ang karakter ni Torre pagkatapos, pero dapat kauna-unawa at katanggap-tanggap ang desisyon niya sa bandang huli.

Or, was he rational and professional to the very end because killing Anderson’s character wins him the competition, preserves his life and makes him the best hired killer after all?

I need to watch the film again. Ito na lang po muna.

Tessa Maria Guazon

I am thinking, the “sleek”/”slick”/”smooth” also translates to “hype”, especially in the context of producing and promoting the film. While it is an overarching trope within the film, it permeates the film beyond material form. I watched numerous interviews with Gerald Anderson, director Erik Matti, more Gerald (until his unusual “lisp” assumed a certain appeal), and these prove my claim.

I will have to disagree with the idea that Joel Torres’s character should strive for a life of so-called nobility—or a life of redemption, if we wish to put it another way. Perhaps that is our moral aspiration. And I really liked the thought of you ending the piece with a question.

I think Torres’s character’s choice of carnage at the very end earns him a chance at nobility. In the end, while he remains alive, he is transformed into Atlas who bears the burden of the world’s excess and amorality, who lives through this burden—someone who has to strangle every last morsel of conscience within his person. And this painfully transforms him into an unfeeling machine who suffers the rest of his remaining years.
Can this be resonant with typical action film characters—this twisted Robin Hood persona?

Jaime Oscar Salazar

Though Mario does assure his family, particularly his daughter, that he will soon retire from his work, giving rise to the impression that he looks forward to a peaceful life, there is also a scene where he informs Thelma of his imminent parole and manifests his eagerness to take on more jobs, which suggests to me that Mario is uninterested in a life free from crime—after years of assassinations, perhaps he is so hardened as to be irredeemable? Certainly the film is not a hopeful one; the most that one can aspire toward is a beautiful death under the bougainvillea. (Were they bougainvillea? Some kind of flowers, at any rate.)

Mario is immediately rebuffed, of course: Thelma tells him that, to the interests she represents, his freedom will make him a greater liability than an asset, as he will be much more difficult to control—if nothing else, he would become a loose end in the entire operation, just like the people whom he has been assigned to eliminate, and might be marked for death at any time. Hence, his later decision to turn against his apprentice, Daniel.

Mario’s expectation that he will still have a career as a killer beyond the bars speaks of incredible naïveté, especially in light of his experience, though he is not unique in that regard—it is possible to argue that many of the characters suffer from this baffling affliction (witness, for instance, Francis and Joaquin), notwithstanding the circumstances of their lives, which brings us back again to the glaring deficiencies of the screenplay.

Skilty Labastilla

“…beautiful death under the bougainvillea”! Like na like!

Kagaya ni Jay, gusto ko rin ang teknikal na aspeto ng pelikula. Akma ang paggamit ng masilakbong editing at propulsive photography sa istorya at hindi lang siya ginamit na gimik dahil kaya itong gawin ng mga filmmakers (at dahil may pera ang Star Cinema). Medyo naingayan lang ako sa music, na ginawang masyadong in-your-face, kaya minsan nagmumukhang rock music video ang pelikula.

Kahit sang-ayon ako sa karamihan na may kahinaan ang screenplay nito, na-appreciate ko naman ang istruktura nito—’yong pag-juxtapose ng good vs. evil (na hindi kailangang black-and-white). ‘Yon nga lang, hindi masyadong nagalugad ng mga manunulat ang mga posibilidad ng kakaibang senaryo na kanilang hinulma.

Siguro mas forgiving ako sa inyo kasi sinusuri ko ang pelikula sa konteksto ng Pinoy action film genre, na ang priority kadalasan ay hindi naman talaga ang paglalahad ng nuanced na kuwento at mga tauhan kundi ang pagpukaw sa mga prurient interests ng mga manonood nito. Kung tutuusin, kahit ginastusan ang at maayos ang craftsmanship ng OTJ, B-movie naman talaga ang sensibilities nito: it revels in its hypermasculinity to the point that you can smell the testosterone from your seat. At siyempre sa Pinoy action genre, par for the course ang sex scenes na wala naman talagang silbi maliban sa pag-pander sa mga kalalakihan, kaya obvious na tacked on lang ‘yong karakter ng old girlfriend ni Gerald, at dinagdag ang bed scene nina Piolo at Shaina para sa Pinoy audience.

Sa madaling salita, hindi ko siya masyadong sineryoso kaya siguro hindi ako nadismaya.

Tessa, ‘di ako sure kung tama ang pagkaintindi ko sa issue mo ng sleek/sheen ng pelikula. Mas gusto mo ba na rawer and grittier ang production values?

Tessa Maria Guazon

Thanks, Skilty, for your thoughts!

On the contrary, though, I think that the soundtrack and the editing are the redeeming points of the film.

Regarding “sleekness”, I think it is not about what one expects from a film of a certain genre. It is not that I wanted it to have more grit or rawness.  I am looking at “slick”/”sleek” as a given characteristic of form, and because it is to some degree alluring, I doubted it. There is devious seduction in OTJ’s use of gloss. And much to our disappointment, this very same slickness weakens, flattens its inherently weak structure.

Sure, we know the much vaunted good and evil trope; it has been worked to death—how else can they be presented in an ambivalent manner?

Skilty Labastilla

In terms of performance, consensus yata ang papuri kay Joel Torre, hati kay Joey Marquez, at thumbs down para sa natitirang cast. Isa ako sa humahanga sa pagganap ni Torre dito. Buong-buo ang characterization niya at makikita ang emotional investment niya sa karakter. Tingin ko ito ang pinakamagandang role ng kanyang career.

Kay Marquez medyo on the fence ako: kahit bilib ako sa kanyang pagganap, ‘di ko maiwasang maisip na nagawa na niya ang ganitong klaseng pagganap—ang nakakatawang everyman—sa iba niyang pelikula, most recently Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles (Erik Matti, 2012).

Sinubukan naman ni Gerald Anderson na maging kapani-paniwala bilang preso, pero ipinagkanulo siya ng kanyang pisikalidad. Ibang-iba ang hulma ng katawan niya sa mga katawan ng mga ka-edad niyang preso. Tingin ko’y walang gym sa ganoong klaseng kulungan. Kung susundin ang sinabi sa script na matagal na siyang nakakulong, hindi kapani-paniwala na ganoon na kalaki ang katawan niya noong nakulong siya. Iniisip ko na lang ang mga posibilidad kung ibang aktor ang gumanap sa role niya: unang nasa isip ko ay si Alex Medina—ordinaryong mukha/katawan, pero nakakatawag-pansin pa rin dahil sa husay ng pagganap.

Wala naman akong problema sa performance ni Piolo Pascual. He did what he could with the role, which only means that his character is not fleshed out very well. Masyado siyang ginawang goody-two-shoes to the point of being boring.

Regarding the script, Jay, can you cite other events that you believe are illogical?

JPaul Manzanilla

Quotable quote: “Ipinagkanulo siya ng kanyang pisikalidad…”

Lisa Ito

I finally watched OTJ last weekend, with a still fully packed crowd.

I’m still trying to follow the thread (naipon ang e-mails, sorry), but offhand, I was blown away, so to speak, by the weight of Torre’s performance. This was balanced by the unease and occasional comic tension between Joey Marquez and Piolo Pascual.

I am ambivalent about Gerald Anderson’s casting. It also strikes me as unbelievably, painfully naive. But this is a quality that dovetails with his intended character, as it is precisely this naïveté which makes his downfall imminent. As for the other characters: too many problems to mention one by one! Gerard’s love interest, for instance, seems to have been inserted for the sole purpose of having a sex scene to offer, fading away after the act.

What I do particularly appreciate about this film is its timing, aired during the height of the Napoles scam brewing outside the cinema. For all its narrative gaps, it aptly conjures the complex web of real-life collusion by the military and police bureaucracy with the so-called bureaucrat-capitalists who dominate the scene, capped by their mercenary enlistment of the lumpenproletariat. Furtive reference is made to how the web reaches “all the way to Malacañang”, but this remains largely hidden and unexplored, for to know is to become a target oneself.

A bit of coincidental trivia: I think the film’s opening sequences included a news clip of my husband joining a protest march. The faces of those who joined are pixilated, but I spotted him right away holding a placard. Pleasant surprise!

Jaime Oscar Salazar

That’s a good point you’ve made, Lisa, regarding how OTJ resonates with the PDAF scandal; it may well be one reason that the film has become so popular. However else it might be understood, it certainly confirms, and may even deepen, the widespread suspicion and distrust with which people view our political system. Finally, though, it seems to me that OTJ suggests that opposing said system is futile, which is objectionable.

Skilty, here are the other illogical events that I observed, in no particular order:

First, the sex scenes—which we all agree on, I think. Even the slightly more believable one with Gerald was introduced clumsily. (These scenes, to my amusement, have been made much of in the press: Gerald and Dawn’s scene apparently took eight hours to shoot, while Piolo and Shaina’s took two days.)

Second, the ability of Joaquin to make connections, despite being a bungling cop. He is able to track Mario down merely on the basis of a cartographic sketch—are our criminal databases that good, particularly considering Mario has supposedly been in jail for the past 13 years?—and, toward the end of the film, just happens to come upon the general (Leo Martinez) and his henchmen while madly driving around.

Third, the confrontation scene between Francis and the general. As you’ve already pointed out, Francis is insufficiently fleshed out, and so his motives do not register clearly. Sure, there are references to his father, whose bad reputation he would like to shake off, and whose wrongful death he would like to avenge, but these fail to come across as persuasive drivers of his behavior, which may be the result not only of weaknesses in the script, but also in the performance.

Fourth, the decision of Michael de Mesa’s character (his name escapes me at the moment), supposedly a veteran politico, to trust an impossibly naïve Francis in the first place. Francis doesn’t display any real venality or greed or ambition, just vapidity.

JPaul Manzanilla

Thanks, Jay, for reminding me of parts when the possibilities of hope were given, which are, again, the problem of the screenplay’s plausibility. Napanood ko ang Eseng ng Tondo (Fernando Poe, Jr., 1997) sa Channel 2 noong Sunday, at masasabing simplistikong Manichaean ang pakikibaka ng mga tauhan sa Pinoy aksyon. Masama lang ang masama at mabuti lang ang mabuti, at hindi pinalalalim ang pagsama at pagbuti nila. So OTJ is a progressive step, Skilty, in presenting a nuanced playing out of the nature of crime.

I’m thinking of nobility here, Tessa, as central to the contradictions of the Philippine action genre. We are given Torre’s character as a coolly calculating one; hence, his decision for a perpetual life of crime is determined by the loss of hope in a post-prison scenario. In this case, his is the most solidly grounded struggle of all the characters in the movie—hardened by crime, as Jay said. And this is perhaps the strongest point of the screenplay. His frustrated attempt to have sex with Angel Aquino’s character is more believable owing to the changing nature of their relationship, compared to the two tacked-on sex scenes.

What is excellent in the film’s making is the representation of the fraught nature of crime and violence in this country, which almost all people know, and ought to be presented to us in myriad ways. Crime is pervasive because those that have already been punished are illegally set free by legally constituted authorities in order to execute their own kind of justice. It seems that crime is always about to happen, because it comes from everywhere: a poor people’s fiesta, in the dirty kitchen of a legitimate business, on the streets, in the presumably safe domesticity of homes. And yet justice comes from nowhere, because those elected to uphold it as part of the affairs of the state—Martinez’s and de Mesa’s characters—preclude the meting out of such.

The film at least gives us spaces of hope, found in Joey Marquez’s character who clumsily—and therefore, “truthfully”—ferrets out the truth. His character doesn’t die in the end. It is Piolo Pacual’s character who is killed, which may be taken as a kind of critique of all those failed attempts to resolve corruption from deep within, in the hierarchy of police and investigative bodies, and the thick blood of family relations.

Nagustuhan ko ang pelikula at malaking abante nga ito sa Filipino action genre. Iyon nga lang, nakulangan ako (na repleksyon pa rin ng patuloy na pag-aaral ng mga pelikula) kaya may kritisismo, at layunin naman ng kritisismo ay ang pag-unlad, ‘di ba?

Skilty Labastilla

JPaul, I wouldn’t exactly describe the ending as hopeful. Buhay nga si Joey, pero tinanggal naman siya sa trabaho, at walang nahuling higher-ups.

The very last scene, with Rayver Cruz taking Piolo’s cell phone out of the file box, can be interpreted in two ways: that Rayver, on a noble personal quest, will act as a whistleblower; or that he has been requested to destroy the phone by his higher-ups.

JPaul Manzanilla

Kaya nga “space of hope” lang, Skilty. At nakita ko iyon sa karakter ni Joey Marquez, kahit paano. And even then, the ending with Rayver Cruz’s character has, at least, a glimpse of freedom, or further entanglements.

Skilty Labastilla

I agree. Hindi siya totally hopeless. Baka may Part 2!

JPaul Manzanilla

Hopefully. Or other films by Matti and others which we expect to be as highly, if not more, attentive to form as this one. The cinematography is exceptional for me.

Jaime Oscar Salazar

We are told little about Rayver’s character, but I am disinclined to entertain the notion that he might become a whistleblower in light of what precedes his act of retrieval. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I think that OTJ ultimately proposes that resistance is useless and reform is impossible. If there is a space of hope to be had, it lies in rejecting this vision of monolithic malevolence. #

 
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Posted by on 21/09/2013 in Film Review

 

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