Scrappy filmmaking can sometimes deliver superb storytelling, as is proven by Erik Matti’s initially wobbly but increasingly gripping, increasingly thoughtful, increasingly increasing three-and-a-half-hour “On the Job: The Missing 8,” the prolific Filipino director’s Venice-competing sequel to the 2013 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight title “On the Job.” While the film unfolds more like the TV show it’s about to become (together with part one, it is due to be re-edited into a six-episode HBO Asia miniseries), that’s hardly a diss these days. And in its current shape — due largely to screenwriter Michiko Yamamoto’s uncanny ability to keep multiple narrative balls in the air at once — it combines the immersive, occasionally spectacular pleasures of genre cinema with the greedy moreishness of longform TV models. It’s a sprawling, satisfying big-screen binge.
It also plays somewhat like a 209-minute dolly zoom: As the aperture widens on the intensely corrupt landscape of a society under strongman leadership (Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte’s name is never mentioned, but the ruthlessly suppressive tactics he is known to employ are everywhere), the focus also narrows onto one man’s painful ethical reawakening. This man is Sisoy Salas (played in a deceptively shrewd, moving performance of integrity gradually winning out over bluster, by John Arcillo) a local celebrity in the municipality of La Paz. On his brash radio talk show, he is known for vociferously defending even the most suspect policies of La Paz’ Machievellian mayor Pedring Eusebio (an excellent Dante Rivero).
His support for Eusebio has caused a rift between Sisoy and his erstwhile best friend Arnel (Christopher De Leon), who now runs the struggling newspaper the pair co-founded back in Sisoy’s more idealistic days. Since the paper has become known for publishing regime-critical stories — often written by crusading journo Weng (Lotlot De Leon) — it has attracted Eusebio’s attention. On the same night he throws a lavish party at which the clueless Sisoy is prevailed upon to sing karaoke, Eusebio orders Arnel’s murder, to be carried out by a hit squad assembled from the inmates of the local prison.
In a cruel twist of fate, Arnel happens not to be alone when his assassins find him, and eight people in total, mostly newspaper staffers but also Arnel’s 8-year-old son, are murdered that night, their bodies hidden. Only one of the killers seems to show any hesitance: Roman (Dennis Trillo), shaggy of mullet and spectacularly broken of nose, at first seems little more than a cog in the movie’s vast machinery, but will later come to play a key role in the newly engaged, grieving and disillusioned Sisoy’s campaign to find the bodies and to make those responsible answer for their crimes.
“On the Job: The Missing 8” is long but it uses its length wisely, to ever more absorbing and enriching effect. And though Matti can be a little undisciplined in deploying showy techniques — “24”-style split-screens, rather ugly montages of social media chatter, newspaper headlines, TV reports and so on — after a rather confusing blizzard of information up top, Jay Halili’s editing soon settles into its rhythm. That beat is often a familiar one: The Scorsese influence is unmistakable, especially in the use of incongruously cheerful or romantic pop tunes (often Tom Jones covers as a nice little running gag) to soundtrack moments of high peril or violence. But if you’re going to paint an ever-broadening, multi-level, practically dynastic portrait of a whole interconnected system of political, judicial, social and penal gangsterism, who better to emulate?
There is some crossover with Matti’s first “On the Job” movie, particularly in the person of cop Joaquin Acosta (Joey Marquez) who even in that earlier film was dedicated to exposing the practice of manipulating prison inmates — who are often inside for far more minor crimes — into becoming political assassins for hire. But the real focus of this sequel is on journalism (recalling “The Wire” season dedicated to newsroom ethics) and its value in a society not only increasingly hostile to traditional print media, but also saturated, as the Philippines is, with online fake news outlets, and social media clickbait masquerading as reputable sources.
The film is designed as a genre procedural, and delivers its most visceral thrills in well-mounted versions of classic set-pieces, like a prison riot and a last-ditch car chase through a cornfield at night — sequences where Matti’s verve, Neil Derrick Bion’s classical, moody photography and Halili’s exemplary cutting work in concert. But there is also a serious point being made here, and a distinctly angry undercurrent of social critique that all the ironic soundtrack cuts and cinematic suspense-building cannot obscure. It would make “On the Job: The Missing 8” a fine double bill with Ramona S. Diaz’s terrific 2020 doc on pioneering Filipina journalist Maria Ressa, “A Thousand Cuts,” which proves how very close to life much of this expansive, uneven but ultimately richly entertaining thriller really is — especially, perhaps, those elements that seem most far-fetched.