Ma. Isabel Ongpin
Truly the Philippine film industry is becoming relevant. With financial support and derring-do by both financiers and filmmakers, we are going beyond the fairy tales, the melodrama and the cartoon characters that emanate from there. I can’t say the comedies are getting more subtle and less slapstick, more intelligent and less inane. Some may be considered clever but the element of coarseness and laughs from grotesquerie seems to have taken permanent hold.
In any case serious film themes in expert hands are now available. See “On the Job” showing right now. It concerns contract killers, a presence in our weak state that we all know and whose work we have witnessed in one way or the other. Justice moves slowly here and the contract killers move fast. Accounts have to be settled among lawless elements and sometimes relatively lawful ones, both can and do resort to taking the law into their own hands when the law seems paralyzed against injustice.
Human rights takes a backseat in the equation of criminals and police elements when a crime has to be solved or an account settled. Both the criminals and the police are guilty of violation of rights. In this way they are foil to each other. Who knows more about criminals than the police and who knows the police better if not criminals?
The background is Philippine society in transition to modernization but in reality very much mired in feudal mores. Loyalty to whoever provides one’s livelihood is a paramount virtue. A livelihood may be illegal but it is still a way to survive, enough to set other moral considerations aside.
So that is “On the Job”, a Philippine noir film set in the belly of Metro Manila, in the hellish national penitentiary, the political backrooms in public or private places, in the disorganized, untidy law enforcement offices, in the grimy streets peopled by the multitudes, where transactional politics, crime contracts and adjustments are required to the need for self-defense, survival in an environment where dreams if they still exist, move ever farther from one’s reach.
It is so true, so tragically real to see young people knowingly ignoring if not following outright in the footsteps of their erring, amoral elders for the comfort of an easy living, a silver platter of creature comforts. The latter characters accepted and saluted, groveled to and emulated them. Until it is too late to do otherwise, one becomes part of the system, a system of inequality and injustice to the majority.
What is praiseworthy in the direction of this film is that it is not heavy-handed or black and white in its treatment of theme and characters. It presents a poverty-stricken society where people make do, manage their daily lot and express their sentiments without preaching, without dwelling on what has been called “the pornography of poverty” , a frequent misstep in depicting Philippine reality where the emphasis on degradation and dirt becomes the moving force rather than the human reaction to it.
The contract killers are two, a veteran and an apprentice. They are professional, expert, cold-hearted and see themselves as just earning a wage, “trabaho ito hindi personalan.” But can a human being no matter how amoral, cold-blooded and ambitious be so totally detached from passions like love, envy, revenge and their ultimate consequences? Apparently not. Trabaho becomes personal in every which way from the policeman who has assets or people who give him the inside info, to the older and younger killer whose dynamics leads to dramatic confrontations.
Meanwhile, the whole plot is composed and propelled by the representatives of the society that we live in where the ambition for political office knows no bounds, where the military oversteps its role from keeping the law to breaking it, where the element of justice is shadowy at best, totally absent at worst.
Those who brave this sordid environment, take a stand for moral order, recognize how perverted it is, pay the price. There is no happy ending but a clear view of what is happening with the hope that some day the numbers of those who see and resist will be multiplied enough to win the good fight.
This film is a sophisticated production from photography to music, to authentic scene building. The roles are deftly acted by the best in Philippine cinema today. Its pace is heart-pounding and eloquent in a passing panorama of details. The whole becomes the worthy sum of its parts.