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Filipino genre maestro Erik Matti takes a big step up in Venice this year with On the Job 2: The Missing 8, his first feature to arrive in an A-list international festival’s main competition.
The film is a sprawling three-and-a-half-hour sequel to his acclaimed neo noir thriller On the Job, which made a critical splash in the Directors’ Fortnight section at Cannes in 2013. On the eve of Venice, the two films were acquired by HBO Max, which has commissioned Matti to re-edited them into a six-part mini-series that will air later this year on HBO Go, the company’s legacy streaming service in Asia Pacific (to be replaced by HBO Max whenever WarnerMedia’s flagship subscription video service eventually rolls out in the region).
A leading figure in the Manila film industry, Matti has directed nearly 20 features in the Philippines, spanning family dramas (Mano Po 2: My Home, 2003), superhero comedy (Gagamboy, 2004), supernatural action adventure (Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles), and several commercially successful horror flicks (Seklusyon, 2016; Kuwaresama, 2019).
But it’s his gritty, street-smart crime movies that have won him the most consistent admiration overseas. Following On the Job‘s warm reception among genre fans at Cannes, Matti followed up with Honor Thy Father (2015), a caustic drama about a Manila family entangled in a Ponzi scheme and the venality of the Filipino upper crust, which screened in Toronto and was summed up by The Hollywood Reporter‘s as “a muscularly indignant thriller.”
In 2018 came BuyBust, a relentless, propulsive action film following a drug bust carried out in by the Philippine DEA in a desperately poor Manila slum. With an on-camera kill count that could compete against most any Zombie movie, the film is relentlessly entertaining but also a blunt commentary on Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly and controversial drug war. The film was picked up by Netflix as the streamer’s first and only movie acquisition from The Philippines to date.
Like all of Matti’s recent work, On the Job 2: The Missing 8 is co-produced by Reality Entertainment, the Manila-based indie film company he founded with his producer partner Dondon Monteverde. And like the original On the Job, the film was co-written by Matti and his wife, noted screenwriter Michiko Yamamoto.
Based on real events, both films center on Philippine crime syndicates that arrange for incarcerated convicts to be temporarily released from state prisons so that they can carry out assassinations for local political leaders. The Missing 8, starring John Arcilla, Dennis Trillo and Dante Rivero, moves the first film’s action from Manila to the smaller city of La Paz in the Philippine countryside. The sequel also broadens the franchise’s area of interest to explore the way the country’s political establishment browbeats, bribes and manipulates the local media — a theme Matti says he was exploring well before the arrival of Donald Trump and “fake news” on the global stage — a corrosive undermining of the fourth estate that sustains the country’s unending cycle of corruption and cynicism, further benefitting those with their hands on the levers of power.
Ahead of Matti’s trip to Venice, The Hollywood Reporter connected with the 50-year-old filmmaker via Zoom at his home in Manila to discuss balancing his real-world moral indignation with the irresistible appeal of wicked gangsters on the big screen.
On the Job 2: The Missing 8 tackles some new social issues that weren’t a part of the first film, and there are moments of hopelessness that are arguably more extreme. At times, the film feels motivated by an almost acidic cynicism. Can you talk about what inspired you to engage with these issues, and your own sense of mission with the storytelling?
Well, from the first film, the idea of On The Job was to take certain sectors of society and pick them apart based on how much sacrifice and discipline they require in our society as it is. So, for the second one, originally, we had several themes and subjects that we wanted to tackle.
One was in the medical sector, because there’s a lot of bootleg black market medicines being brought into the country, and no one’s answering for what happens to people when they take those medicines. Another issue was gambling, not just online but underground gambling in cities big and small, which is directly connected to government here. Then the third one was journalism, because unlike in first-world countries, wherein most people don’t know each other, in the Philippines, everyone is somehow connected or related to each other. So if an influential person has a problem with a news article, they can usually just call a friend, or a friend of a friend, and they can get to the person who wrote and reported it — and then maybe they can get some changes made to the news by applying some pressure.
Those were the three topic that we were thinking of, but as we dug deeper we were starting to focus more and more on the journalism issue — and then the whole Trump/Russia “fake news” thing exploded. So, we started thinking, “We should try to finish this earlier, it’s going to be so timely.” But we didn’t finish until four years later — but the fake news is still with us and the issue hasn’t gone away. So obviously we weren’t too late! [Laughs] The truth is still so hard to decipher, and social media remains just a bottomless pit of misinformation and disinformation, and no one knows what they can really believe. So we used that as the backdrop, but then we tell a story with all of these different layers to what happens to these complicated, compromised characters — and that makes it all a little more interesting.
And it’s acidic because I was making the film at a time when fake news stories are just all over the place here in the Philippines. Trolling too. We have to live with it. I’ve been a victim of trolling as well. I posted some criticism of the government and my social media accounts were totally trolled. But that just fuels you to tell the story even better, even clearer.
You’ve mentioned in the past that the premise of the original On the Job film — which involves convicts who are temporarily released from prison to commit contract killings on behalf of corrupt politicians — came to you from a crew member, an ex-con who told you that he was recruited to participate in exactly such a scheme in real life. Then, when we spoke about your Philippines drug war movie, BuyBust, a couple of years ago, you mentioned how the detective who acted as your on-set police consultant was actually murdered shortly after you had wrapped production. He was killed outside his home by a fellow corrupt cop who was involved in the drug trade — which is one of the issues the film directly depicts. So How does this rather terrifying proximity to some of the real corruption and political violence you depict in your work affect your filmmaking?
So, two years ago I posted that On the Job 2: The Missing 8 was going to be my last socio-political film. I just wanted to go into doing normal movies — maybe a fantasy film about magicians and ferries or something? [Laughs] — rather than having my work dig into what’s really going on in the streets. But then I encounter stories that are just too good to pass up.
Our world here in the Philippines is somehow very connected — filmmaking, politics, governance. I’ll give you a simple example. We’ve done several films [at my company] since lockdown. There have been some cities that are totally locked down and others that might allow productions to come in and shoot. But first you need to reconnect with the politicians and the police force — even the military — because they’re often the ones giving the go ahead, like, “Yes, you can shoot here, but not there, and you can only bring in a crew of 20 people.”
So you have to work with them, and by having them on set, sitting down and having a coffee with them, you just hear all of these stories that make you realize how ambiguous things can get in their world — how a lot of compromised things happen. It’s no longer black and white. The gray areas are not necessarily criminal, but just how they end up running things, where they’re like, “Oh, he’s a friend, I know him, we can let him go;” or, “I know his father and his sister’s friend, so maybe we can help them out.” Sometimes this results in bad outcomes, of course; but the strange part is that sometimes it also works out, wherein the people on the other side simply need all the help they can get. Sometimes they use that flexibility to do some good.
So, to answer your question, we’re always intermingling with all of these different parts of society and their stories, and then you can’t help but have socio-political ideas to put on film.
Your films certainly illustrate the moral grey zone and desperate situations that such characters find themselves in. But there seems to be a sense of moral outrage lurking behind the camera too — a fury about the rampant corruption. Do you think that’s fair?
It is. One collaborator of mine mentioned that The Missing 8 is the angriest work I’ve ever done. I said, “Well, some parts of the film are funny, so it’s not entirely true!” [Laughs]. But you’re right, it’s there.
I posted something two months ago about really wanting to dissect and criticize the whole socio-political system that we have, but how there’s also a strange admiration from a filmmaker’s standpoint at how how interesting and complex these players actually are — as they work around the system.
For example, in the sequel, you have a newspaper owner who essentially works for the mayor. This is true for most cities here. In the countryside, [news outlets] are small and they don’t have enough income on a monthly basis, so they end up servicing whoever is in power. At one point you write the news, but at another point you also protect the people you’re supposed to be writing about and investigating in the news.
So what’s weird is that on the one hand, you want to tell the story for what it is, with all the things that you hate about it, all the things that you clearly must criticize. But on the other hand, as you’re getting closer to these characters, you learn how they’re all just trying to get by — the journalist is just trying to have his paper survive, and the politician is under various pressures, and has his enemies, and he’s just trying to stay in power. So, I also just love the humanity of these people. You know what I mean? They are such human stories, when you really come into contact with them.
Just last night, for example, we invited a group of people from all different sectors of society to have an early dinner and a gathering. It was also the last day of lockdown. So we had some top people from the sports arena, from showbiz and from the politics side; and we just started talking about what’s going on in the country — and it’s just fun to listen in. We do this kind of thing every other week or so — we get people together. And then you just hear all these crazy stories of what’s going on behind the scenes. Yes, if you just read about some of these things in the news, you’d instantly say, “Oh, I despise that person.” But when you meet the people and understand what’s going on behind the scenes, you start understanding it more as a matter of human frailty rather than evil deeds — and that gets more interesting.
That’s kind of a hallmark of gangster cinema, isn’t it? How the characters tend to be morally repugnant and unworthy of glorification, but at the same time, they’re irresistibly compelling…
Yeah, more than the first one, the sequel is really built around the idea of a gangster movie, only the gangsters are politicians. Stylistically, we have classic American songs playing in the background, and you have the camera sweeping through these big party scenes. It reads like an American gangster movie only it’s set in the Philippines. We have our assassins, but the assassins are not really the most adept at what they do, which is a counterpoint to how assassins are usually pictured in such films. In this one, they’re just people who were hired to kill. Will kill? Oh yes. But are they highly trained? I don’t think so.
I imagine you’re occasionally asked whether you ever worry that depicting real-life corruption and political violence in the way you do might put you personally at risk.
Yeah, it’s been asked of me. And yes, both [the first] On The Job and The Missing 8 are totally inspired by real stories and real events. But knowing the aesthetic of the film, if the real figures watch it, I don’t think they’re going to think, “Oh, that’s me!” — because it’s all wrapped in a movie world and language. It doesn’t feel like a documentary, so I think I’m safe from that. But I don’t know yet. With the second one, maybe I’m pushing my envelope a little farther — but that’s how it should be.
There’s also the side to this where, you know, those famous Italian Mafia figures, they apparently loved to see themselves on the big screen, right? You hear the stories about how the Mafia guys drove to watch themselves in old gangster movies, and they’d be like, “Oh, that’s me, man. Why weren’t you there in the film? That’s definitely me!” So there’s also a kind of flexing that goes on when you see yourself depicted on the screen like that — “I must be an important person for them to pick on my story.”
When you make work like this that is so rooted in the lived reality of the Philippines, as both a depiction and a commentary, who do you feel that you’re making the film for?
More and more as I grow older, I’m trying as hard as I can to get really cinematic. I think that’s the reason why this film became three hours and 28 minutes long — it’s a resistance to how films have changed over the years. The conversation now is like, “Oh, does your actor have a following on social media? Is your story relevant to millennials or Gen Z?” We get hit with all these warnings, and you can never just come up with a great story hoping that the whole industry will embrace it and say, “Okay, let him have his story. Let him tell that.” There’s so much resistance.
So when I find a way to make my films the way I want to make them, I just do so hoping that people who love the same kind of cinema that I love — which is mostly 1970s Hollywood crime films, or French [Jean-Pierre] Melville-type cop corruption movies — that I can convince them that, “Hey guys, these films aren’t getting made anymore, so come out and watch it!” Making and releasing [the original] On the Job film taught us so many lessons. No one wanted to make, then no one wanted to see it, then suddenly everyone seemed to want to see it.
Really? How so?
Well, we shopped it around for four years before we were able to make it. Then we made it, the trailer came out and no one understood it. Because during that time there were no action films being made in the Philippines anymore. Everyone was saying, “Where is this coming from? What is this? We don’t get it.” No one in the Philippines watched the film. No one. At all the cinemas that deal with a mass audience, it got kicked off screens as early as three days in.
Then, and it only took about a year, there was a resurgence of interest because of illegal downloads. Suddenly, a year later, there were even news articles, saying, “Oh, there’s this exciting recent Philippine crime film called, On the Job.” And I was like, “But it’s not in cinemas, so where did you see it? Come on, man, even the journalists are pirating it?” [Laughs] Then we started hearing that it had appeared on the YouTube of China and was getting millions of views over there — and movies about police corruption aren’t even supposed to be allowed in China!” So it was unfortunate that all of this word of mouth came a bit too late. But you’re also just happy that people saw it one way or another. I don’t know… I don’t know what to feel about it. Of course, I would have wanted them to see it in a real cinema.
Did that viral interest give you more confidence about doing the sequel?
That’s the question, right? Well, me and my arrogant self, or maybe my stupid self, is thinking, “They liked the first one in the end, so maybe they’ll come out and support the second one.” But at the same time, in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “You just made a movie that’s 3 hours and 28 minutes long.” That’s not the most exciting selling point… “Hey, let’s go watch a movie.” “How long is it?” “Three hours and 28 minutes.” “Oh, my God.” [Laughs]
But deep down inside, more than earning back the money so that you can do your next film, it’s also about letting the audience know that there are other things that can be done in cinema in the Philippines.
And it’s also a time capsule, because this movie’s huge party scenes and big political rally scenes with the large crowds — those aren’t going to be done again during the pandemic, right? You can’t shoot that kind of thing here for at least the next two years probably. So those big scenes harken back to what it was like before this whole Covid thing happened. It’s like a swan song of days gone by — of the good old days for Philippine cinema.
A version of this story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 2 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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