Erik Matti's "On the Job" (2013) was one of the best Filipino films in the last decade, if not of all time. The timely topic tackled was straight off the news headlines about convicts hired to do politically-motivated murders, well before the acronym EJK became a household word. It had an array of big name movie stars, with leading men Piolo Pascual and Gerald Anderson, and reliable veterans like Joel Torre and Joey Marquez. The suspense was heart-pounding, the pace frenetic, definitely not predictable at all.
Director Matti and writer Michiko Yamamoto recently decided to make a Part 2 for "On the Job." It is now an HBO Asia Original Series with 6 episodes, each named after one of the main characters. Episode 1 "Tatang" (Joel Torre's character) and Episode 2 "Acosta" (Joey Marquez's character) were actually derived from the original 2013 film itself, edited to fit two hour-long episodes. While this may be disappointing for those expecting new material right from the start, these two served as a refresher to the world we are about to reenter.
Episode 3 "Arnel" is the official first episode of the new sequel series. The only character we see held over from the original film at first was General Rene Pacheco (Leo Martinez) who was facing a Senate inquiry for his involvement in murders. Another major character will make a surprise guest appearance in Episode 5 "Roman" (the best episode for me).
The main arena of action of this sequel is in the fictional city of La Paz, said to be the most progressive city in the country under the leadership of its powerful mayor Pedring Eusebio (Dante Rivero).
As the elections drew close and Eusebio planned to run for Vice President, the lives of two local journalists in La Paz are about to face a major change anew. They used to be close friends, co-founders of the La Paz Newspaper, but were now on opposite sides of the political fence. They are the pro-Eusebio radio personality Sisoy Salas (John Arcilla) and the anti-Eusebio newspaper publisher Arnel Pangan (Christopher de Leon).
Like the original "On the Job," there was also a syndicate of convict assassins at work in the La Paz Penitentiary, operated by policeman Obet Pamintuan (Soliman Cruz). Among his men were Roman Rubio (Dennis Trillo). What was supposed to have been a hit on one person went terribly wrong when their target had seven more people in his van with him. These victims were later dubbed "The Missing 8" by the press.
Mayor Pedring Eusebio of La Paz was very suggestive of one specific high-profile mayor and his city. With a backhoe prominently seen digging a big hole in an empty field, the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre immediately comes to mind for Filipino viewers. Foreign viewers may be shocked to know that heinous event actually happened in real life. While looking back to the past at the desaparecidos during Martial Law, the filmmakers advocated for all those who had died or disappeared for political reasons since then, media practitioners in particular.
Sisoy was the only character with a full arc and of course as expected, John Arcilla went the full nine yards with him. The other main characters (on which the episodes were named) were not as well-developed. Rivero's Pedring Eusebio was painted as a stereotypical one-dimensional corrupt traditional politician. Trillo's Roman was given a crooked nose and atrocious hair, but not enough of a story for us to care for him. Christopher de Leon's Arnel's backstory as a journalist could have had more details to flesh him out more.
Lotlot de Leon's Weng was a fearless and dedicated journalist, fiercely loyal to truth and justice. Andrea Brillantes was Sisoy's feisty and techie younger daughter. Eric Fructuoso and Vandolph Quizon played fellow assassins. Wendell Ramos played Eusebio's ambitious son Bernie with a trophy wife (Megan Young). Jenny Jamora was practically silent as Vicky Eusebio, Pabling's first lady. Dolly de Leon's Inday was remarkable as Eusebio's heartless master of black propaganda. Carlos Siguion-Reyna played Eusebio's political rival Vicente.
These last 4 episodes were well-made and well-intentioned, indignant and earnest in its angry message and its sensational exposé on the buried issues behind the news headlines. Its very familiar tragic scenarios may lessen its shock factor a bit for Filipino viewers, but nevertheless remains a very potent viewing experience. Its just that the original 2013 film set the bar so high in terms of its complex skillfully-plotted original story and flawless technical execution, it was difficult for this follow-up to reach that level of excellence in comparison.
Postscript: The last four episodes of this series were edited together and screened as a single feature film in the main competition of this year's 78th Venice International Film Festival, as "On the Job: The Missing 8." As the only Asian film in that category, it is proud proof that the Philippine movie industry remains alive and well in the face of the worldwide pandemic.
John Arcilla won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor in awarding ceremonies earlier Sunday.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."