Gangsta’s Paradise: On The Job movie review
The international film world is a trendy place, and programmers are constantly mining national cinemas for the next big thing. Among Asian countries, in recent years Hong Kong, South Korea, and Thailand have became the source for hot and happening directors such as Johnny To, Kim Ki-Duk, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and more, as film fests try to scoop the latest and hottest genre and arthouse directors to liven up their programming. This year’s flavor seems to be the Philippines, as four new Filipino films premiered at Cannes this year. I call it the “Brillante Mendoza effect,” since that director has had a run of movies screening at tony international film fests like Toronto, Hong Kong, and Cannes, where Kinatay famously and controversially won the Best Director prize, after which Roger Ebert declared it was “the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival.” Filipino movies have started to get more respect in Asia as well where, interestingly enough, they are often disregarded or ignored by their more established cousin industries in Hong Kong, Japan, and China. Veteran actors Nora Aunor and Eddie Garcia both won acting awards at the 7th Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong this year, and also won big at the Asia Pacific Film Festival in Macau and the Asia Pacific Screen Awards in Brisbane, Australia. So much like sisig and adobo are the food truck flavors of the month, Filipino cinema has become the new darling of international film set.
Erik Matti’s On The Job was one of the Filipino Four that screened at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes this year and in the past few years his work has been popping up at festivals in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. Unlike Mendoza, his arthouse countryman, Matti’s a longtime veteran of Filipino commercial film and television production, starting out directing adverts for Filipino TV and moving on to direct a slew of genre product including horror, crime, and comedies.
A gritty, entertaining crime thriller, On The Job was produced for commercial distribution in the Philippines, not for international arthouse audiences, but Matti’s confident control of the material elevates the film from a mainstream genre picture to something more.
The movie opens with a no-nonsense sequence showing Tatang and Daniel, a pair of sketchy dudes, shooting down a man execution-style in broad daylight in a crowded street. Despite their faces being fully exposed the two killers are fearless, seemingly unconcerned about witnesses or the possibility of arrest. It soon becomes clear why they can stroll the streets murdering people—right after they do the deed they’re taken off to prison, where they’ve been residing as convicts for years, hiding in plain sight while the police search fruitlessly for them.
On the case is Senior Detective Acosta, a veteran cop, paired up with Atty. Francis Coronel, an up-and-coming young federal investigator whose father-in-law is a big-time politician. Acosta and Coronel’s relationship parallels that of Tatang and Daniel, drawing classic genre connections between cops and criminals.
On The Job plays up the corruption of the PI police and politicians and their links to their shadow partners, the criminals doing the dirty work of assassinations. Matti’s film boasts a strong premise, hyperkinetic roving handheld camerawork, great sound design, and smoky filtered lighting, with bursts of violence punctuating the narrative. Matti draws out strong performances from his cast, which includes heartthrob Piolo Pascual as Coronel, the upstanding young federale who falls into a pit of corruption once he starts investigating the case. Despite being very pretty, Pascual is believable as a driven and determined investigator whose family connections are a dubious benefit. Anchoring the film is veteran Filipino actor Joel Torre as Tatang, the middle-aged convict/killer who’s hoping to escape his shitty life situation by taking on contract assassinations.
What’s missing is a sense of exactly why Daniel, the younger convict, would willingly become a coldblooded assassin. Tatang, the older of the pair of cons, has a full backstory complete with a two-timing wife and a daughter he’s putting through college, but Daniel’s life is a bit sketchy. It’s not until more than halfway into the movie that we see evidence of a girlfriend or any other positive interpersonal relationships besides his friendship with Tatang. I get that he’s in prison and this might be a way to gain his freedom, but he doesn’t seem to feel a lot of remorse for the ruthless murders he commits. The movie doesn’t effectively reveal how the Daniel started out or where he’s going, only where he is right in the moment. This robs the film of some emotional impact beyond the visceral repulsion of his violent killings. However, his relationship with Tatang, his mentor-in-crime, is strongly developed and its ultimate conclusion is powerful and unexpected, yet logical in the scheme of the characters’ dynamic.
On The Job opens this weekend across the U.S. and has a chance to be a breakout Asian film in both arthouse and mainstream cinemas. Because of the genre’s enduring popularity and accessibility, crime films like OTJ have become the lingua franca in the international film world, and Matti may be the latest Asian director to cash in on the ongoing crime film wave.
Opens September 27
AMC Metreon in San Francisco
Century Tanforan 20 in San Bruno
Milpitas Great Mall in Milpitas
Union City 25 in Union City
Century 14 in Vallejo