Right now, so much praise has elevated Erik Matti’s ON THE JOB to somewhat an instant classic and is even often called one of the best Filipino movies in years. It’s a culmination of the current Philippine film scene, no doubt. I’ve seen it coming its way as a result of much (late) advancement in local cinema and from a director who has hop scotched from the independent scene to the mainstream, specializing in horror (VESUVIUS, 2012; PA-SIYAM, 2004) and action (GAGAMBOY, 2004). A fusion of both genres made Matti’s notable film TIKTIK which proved its existence and screenings as a groundbreaking event in local cinema. This is due to its prominent use of CGI that produced very seamless images we have never seen before (in a local sense). There is no doubt that Matti’s ambition of taking cinema one step further is manifested once again with ON THE JOB – but with these mentioned films, what grounds are we really breaking? What is newly-given in the cinema of Erik Matti?
Perhaps, first and foremost (and like TIKTIK) it is a technical achievement. Half of the actors are mediocre, and while there are superb actors like Joel Torre, Leo Martinez and a surprise turn from Joey Marquez, the film’s use of Star Magic stars has wasted its potential. They appear like lost rich people, awkward in their physical environments and attached to their ASAP moments. But the performances are covered up by rich detail in cinematography and production design. J. Pilapil Jacobo of the Young Critics Circle has lambasted the film’s writing and performances but gave credit where credit is really due: it is the film’s stylistic look that elevated its status, thanks to Jay Halili as editor, Erwin Romulo as musical scorer, Richard Somes as production designer, and Ricardo Buhay III as cinematographer.
Kudos to Matti then for breathing new life to the medium of film in the local scene, but in a wider perspective, it is only an aesthetic make-over and not much of an advancement to the content and politics of film – two aspects of cinema Filipinos usually take for granted. Aesthetically, we were only able to catch up on Hollywood trends that would forever debunk our local cheesy 90s action filmmaking. And Matti’s mastery of combining conventions of not-so-distant genres made way for a new fusion of genres – the action and crime thriller. Matti’s direction gave the film its power and a masterful flow but concept-wise, it is a mere repolishing of old conventions that have defined the action genre.
And as an action film, it bears not only familiar elements but sexual politics – the rule of men in a crime-ridden world. In a cinematic space where men are criminals, of course the heroes are also men. And as spectators, while we follow their pursuits, we take their macho sexist culture as our own. As a gay film viewer, the action genre is a pain to see just as long as its straight men take the gays and women as secondary personalities, subordinated if not oppressed and beaten. Women in OTJ are mere secondary figures who provide sexual tension and their clumsiness is the men’s downfall (take for instance the example of Shaina Magdayao’s character). While at first I was delighted to see Vivian Velez as the femme fatale, a mysterious woman in control of a bunch of men, in the wider scope of things, she is of course a villain and revealed as a subordinate of the patriarchal menace that is the politician (Leo Martinez). And what can I say about the derogatory use of the word “bakla”. Is this a mere reflection of the lower class or a manifestation of Philippine cinema’s patriarchal ideology? Laura Mulvey would love to deconstruct such a film, especially since it’s released in the age of feminism and queer theory! How backward are we in our generation to produce such a sexist film, insensitive to a whole prolonged movement of gender issues and sexual struggle? Or a better question yet, in a feminist’s perspective, do we really need another film like ON THE JOB?
Hannah Espia’s TRANSIT is rumored to be OTJ’s rival in conquering the American Academy Awards’ Foreign Language section. Seeing the film after OTJ, TRANSIT is everything I wanted the former to be: a film that showcases masterful use of technical but has crafted a rich story that has a genuine struggle for women, in a space where they are only aliens surviving for their families. With its machismo, the testosterone festival that is OTJ is not a necessary movie in this era. And if we’ll only hail it for looking good, a true progression to our local cinema will never take place.