The Ugly Truth Captured Beautifully
Director: Erik Matti
Writers: Erik Matti, Michiko Yamamoto
Starring: Joel Torre, Gerald Anderson, Piolo Pascual, Joey Marquez
It’s hard to remain optimistic when you are surrounded by an ugly reality, but we cannot simply turn a blind eye on society’s flaws. We would all love to see things that make us happy, but sometimes it is the most painful sights that matter most. That’s why we cherish heartbreaking stories and why, even if it makes us angry, we demand truth.
This is what Erik Matti’s “On the Job” (OTJ) gives us: a painful truth, coated in the adrenaline rush that an action-thriller/crime drama provides, like sugar to keep you from spitting your medicine out. It’s a good ride; it’s entertainment. But in the end, you cannot ignore the bitter aftertaste. You may watch it for the kick, for the star-studded cast, or for the visual beauty that it is. But in the end, yes, you get that kick… just not what you’re expecting. “OTJ” kicks you in the gut, showing you this is not just entertainment. This is the ugly reality.
More than your average Pinoy action movie, “OTJ” leads us through a web of crimes, conspiracies and deceptions. It revolves around the professional lives of the four main characters: two cops and two convicts. The story begins as the two inmates – veteran hitman Tatang (Joel Torre) and his protégé Daniel (Gerald Anderson) – go on their occasional field-trip to assassinate a man in a graphic murder scene (a rare sight in Philippine cinema). The murder becomes a sensational case, and the authorities are suddenly under pressure to catch the gunmen. The task falls to SPO1 Joaquin Acosta (Joey Marquez) but the case is soon mysteriously taken off his hands and given to the young but politically privileged NBI agent Francis Coronel, Jr. (Piolo Pascual). We follow Tatang and Daniel as they quickly move from target to target, and the story unravels like an investigation process as more bodies force Acosta and Coronel to catch up with the suspects. Gradually, the story reveals bits and pieces about the characters’ backstories. Eventually, as the men work with and struggle against each other, a bigger force makes its presence felt – the rigid, complex and unforgiving structure of corruption. The truth becomes even more complicated as the characters decide how to handle the situation that is spinning out of control. Their choices will not only affect their lives and those of the people they love but also the fate of the country. Or so they think.
Tension escalates when these two groups finally cross paths. They fight each other from the opposite sides of the law but they’re all just trying to do their jobs. In the process, their professional lives overshadow their personal lives, and they lose who they are to their occupations, becoming mere instruments of a greater common enemy – the corrupt system that contains them and the powerful forces that command it.
The film noir-inspired cinematography and art direction of “OTJ” makes the movie very visually pleasing. The camera captures the gritty and raw reality of dangerous alleys, chaotic slums and suffocating prison life but does so in a very graceful manner. At times, the camera glides behind the actors in brilliant continuous shots or it simply sits intimately face-to-face with the actors. The excellent lighting frames the subjects so beautifully, leaving to the shadows the excessive violence that lurk in the darkness and bringing to light the faces that are witnesses to these brutalities. Despite the disorder surrounding the characters – the loud and busy crowds, the dirty streets – we are never distracted from the actors’ performances.
Joel Torre gives a breathtaking performance as a seemingly cold-blooded man who never ever lets anything get in the way of his target. From the first few seconds, we see a man who is fully aware of but unmoved by the consequences of his actions. Tatang is not incapable of feeling sympathy. Instead, he consciously shuts his conscience because of what is at stake once he fails. Torre excellently becomes this impenetrable man while revealing Tatang’s vulnerabilities in the most subtle, poignant manner. Anderson also gives a decent performance as a naively self-absorbed young man who just cannot wait to become as good a hitman as Tatang. Pascual is Coronel from every angle, the sophisticated promising young agent whose future is already being prepared for him. But his character – the naïve rookie – is probably the least interesting. Marquez rather impresses more as a ‘bad cop’ who is more than willing to use police brutality but will not let anything stop him from uncovering the truth, even if it means never getting a promotion.
The remarkable musical score complements the scenes without standing out too much, ensuring that the focus remains on what is happening. The editing is flawless. The smooth, continuous prison shots and the energetic chase scenes are probably some of the best scenes in contemporary Filipino cinema. Not to mention, the top-notch execution of the hospital scene where everything was spot on. “OTJ” leaves no room for boredom and while it lets you catch your breath every once in a while, it captures and demands your full attention. It doesn’t allow you to leave your seat.
What separates “OTJ” from most Pinoy films of its kind – and even a good number of Hollywood blockbusters – is how it uses these technical aspects to highlight the story. Instead of focusing on form alone, Matti uses the cinematography, editing and music to draw the viewers’ attention onto the characters and deep into the story. One doesn’t just notice how beautiful the shots are or how amazing the soundtrack is, but how all these factors paint the brutal atmosphere where the characters live and breathe. Matti utilizes form to paint the rigid structure of corruption that encloses these characters – the colosseum where they can only overcome each other but not the system. This paints the reality that, just like anyone, these characters would like to think that their actions would define the course of history – that doing the right thing will put an end to the wrong. If not, they could at least decide their own fate, that doing their jobs will keep them safe. But “OJT” shows that life is more complicated. People can choose how to act, but the consequences are already decided by the powerful few.
Erik Matti redefines the Philippine action genre by bringing forward a film that is bold, gritty, thrilling, highly relevant, uncompromising, intelligent and brilliantly executed. Matti fully integrates the genre into the Filipino reality, making it all the more realistic and powerful. “OTJ” is an excellent example of making the genre and the form work for the story and putting the message at the heart and core of filmmaking.
Images from Twitchfilm.com