Movies & TV

On The Job: The Missing 8 Is the Truth That Filipinos Live

John Arcilla, Best Actor of the 78th Venice Film Festival, is a scintillating star as the thriller's antihero journalist.
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John Arcilla is a gift. Of the many great things that can be said about On The Job, the most unforgettable is Arcilla’s performance as Sisoy, a radio personality on the take in the fictional town of La Paz. Director and series co-creator Erik Matti initially planned On The Job 2: The Missing 8, the sequel to his 2013 neo-noir tour de force, as a web series but this was re-edited along with the first film into a six-part miniseries for distribution through HBO Go. 

At the beginning of each episode, there’s a quote followed by the words: inspired by true events. At the end of each episode, there’s a disclaimer that the story, names, characters, and incidents are fictitious and that no identification with actual persons should be inferred. But every Filipino knows these characters. Every Filipino knows that every corrupt cop and politician, every killer, every killing, every act of hubris, cruelty, and greed … is real. On The Job is the truth that every Filipino lives.

And truth is stranger than fiction. While On The Job 2: The Missing 8 was clearly inspired by the Maguindanao Massacre, it might be a complete shock to be reminded that 58, not eight, people were killed and dumped into a mass grave in 2009. At least 34 journalists were killed in what is considered to be the single deadliest event for journalists in history—not just in Philippine history, but of all time. All the women, two of them pregnant, were raped and killed, their genitals shot and mutilated. 

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The massacre of eight people in the series, seven journalists from the La Paz Newspaper and one young boy, seems to pale in comparison. If writer Michiko Yamamoto had chosen to bump the body count closer to the actual event, it might have been too ridiculous for television. Surely nobody can be so brazen as to kill 58 people in broad daylight and expect to get away with it, right?

Except that no, actually, it’s more fun in the Philippines and the rich and powerful routinely get away with literal murder. The 2013 film, which was utterly heartbreaking and frustrating, was re-edited into two episodes and appended to the series as a form of preamble to the Missing 8, which isn’t quite a direct sequel but a new story that follows the antihero Sisoy as he works to uncover the truth.

Arcilla is a scintillating star, bringing life to the pragmatism and jadedness of a journalist who knows how things work.

Arcilla is a scintillating star, bringing life to the pragmatism and jadedness of a journalist who knows how things work in the Philippines. Sisoy is a loose analog for either Tulfo brother, and his AM radio jabber and catchphrases, canned laughs and sound effects are familiar sounds to many Filipinos. Arcilla is flawless and his Sisoy is almost as iconic as his Heneral Luna, and we are only so lucky to witness a performance, filled with tremendous pathos, such as this. (Arcilla went on to win the Coppa Volpi for Best Actor at the 78th Venice Film Festival, beating out the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Oscar Isaac.)

Matti and Yamamoto have wrought a sequel that, while not quite free from the absolute despondence of the first film, follows a different trajectory. Yamamoto, who wrote Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo OliverosHonor Thy Father, and On The Job, is a phenomenally talented scribe who managed to pick the worst parts of Philippine politics and serve them up as a six-course meal that’s all at once delectable and emetic.

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It’s delectable because On the Job is richly beautiful, Matti’s remarkable guiding hand enriching every frame with so much substance that it’s too easy to miss the little details. When Christopher de Leon’s Arnel is shown smoking in his car while driving, he passes a sign that says Smoking is Prohibited and that smoking kills. It’s a brilliant premonition and subtle nod to Arnel’s hidden nature. 

Erik Matti tells us to look and we’re not allowed to turn away.

It’s emetic because everything is too real, too close to home. Matti and Yamamoto have created a microcosm of the rot that’s an indelible part of Philippine politics and culture, the impunity that we see every day on our feeds splayed out on celluloid. On The Job is Matti’s Infernal Affairs and is just as gut-wrenching and impossible to turn away from. This is a reflection of us, our world, of the people run roughshod over us. Matti tells us to look and we’re not allowed to turn away.

The music, created, and curated by Erwin RomuloMalek Lopez, and Arvin Nogueras, is very deliberate where the lyrics are, if only slightly on the nose, an integral part of the experience. The wonderful juxtaposition of Arcilla belting out Tom Jones’ “You’re My World” punctuated by the sound of Armalites in the night, or Khavn’s entertaining but deeply dark ditty “Mangmang” accompanying an execution in the rain exemplify the meticulousness of On The Job’s music.

Corinne de San Jose’s sound design is sublime. Perfect. About eight and half minutes into the third episode, we’re introduced to Sisoy through his AM radio program and, as the scenes flow from an aerial view of La Paz, to a low-angle shot of Arnel in his car, to a bird’s eye view of residents going about their business, to a tracking shot inside Sisoy’s radio station DZLP until we finally see Sisoy himself, it is a master class in layering and spatial audio. 

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Matti’s work is elevated by such an incredibly talented crew, including his frequent collaborator behind the camera Neil Derrick Bion, the genius behind the neon freneticism of BuyBust and the textural darkness of Kuwaresma. Films are the paragon of collaborative mediums and On The Job 2: The Missing 8 is the paragon of collaboration. It is powerful and real, or perhaps it is powerful because of how real it is.

The Missing 8 delivers the catharsis audiences never got from On The Job.

Every Filipino has felt helplessness against a broken system. On The Job, at its core, is the purest example of how broken the system is: Incarcerated criminals are routinely extricated from prison for contract killings and inserted back when the job is done. It’s a practice that requires so many moving parts that it only works if the entire system is broken. 

While the first film examines the corruption of the criminal justice system, how deep and how high it goes, The Missing 8 uses that foundation of inevitable irreparability as the maze through which Sisoy navigates his journey to find truth and perhaps even redemption.

Dennis Trillo, uglified with middling prosthetics, is Roman, the sequel’s contract killer from prison. Unlike Joel Torre’s veteran Tatang, who shows no remorse and even kills a character whom he ostensibly loves like a son, Roman just wants to get out of prison and is only doing hits as a means to an end. While Tatang is dead inside, Roman still has emotions, if not necessarily a conscience.

In many ways, The Missing 8 is Matti and Yamamoto’s way of delivering the catharsis audiences never got from On The JobDante Rivero plays La Paz mayor Pedring Eusebio, easily an archetypal Filipino politician, but also not coincidentally a mayor of a “crime-free” city who secretly runs hits on political opponents with his own death squads and even has a person in charge of generating completely fake news. If all that seems familiar, just remember that the characters are fictitious and that no association with anyone real should be inferred. Wink, wink.

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But make no mistake, On The Job: The Missing 8 is complete fiction. While 2013’s On The Job mirrored our utter hopelessness, the sequel is tempered with a minute injection of hope. It really isn’t much, and most people still literally get away with murder, but it’s more than we get on a daily basis in a country where billions are plundered right under our noses and we have to take it with a smile. Under a mask and face shield, of course.

The Missing 8 is a remarkable cinematic experience broken down into digestible, hour-long chunks. It is Matti’s homage to Brian de Palma and is thematically grander in scale than On The Job and texturally brighter and lighter. In these oppressive times, Matti and Yamamoto sagely give us a more rewarding experience than their first installment in the franchise. We Filipinos most certainly need it.

On The Job is now streaming on HBO Go.

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Hugo Zacarias Yonzon IV
Zach Yonzon is a cake artist and co-owner of Bunny Baker
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