Filipino movies

‘On the Job: The Missing 8’ review: An unlikely ghost story

Jason Tan Liwag
‘On the Job: The Missing 8’ review: An unlikely ghost story

HBO Asia

Erik Matti’s 'On The Job: The Missing 8' departs from big city action and zooms in on provincial journalism to deliver an unlikely ghost story packaged as an uneven slow-burn thriller

When one watches The Missing 8, one must actively resist the impulse to compare it to On the Job. Viewers often use the first film of any franchise as a measuring stick to which all others will be measured against – unknowingly dismissing artistic merits, ignoring differences in the birthing process, and failing to take into account changes in the zeitgeist. The predecessor will always have two advantages over its successors: the absence of expectation and nostalgia.

And yet people will compare. Especially as On the Job is re-released as a larger story, combining both a recut of the original and the sequel into a six-episode mini-series on HBO Go. The re-edited original teems with life as it gives fuller backstories to previous characters, making their desires clearer and their fates far more tragic. Those who watch The Missing 8 thinking it’s the same high-octane, testosterone-filled noir crime thriller as its predecessor will be treated to a pleasant surprise: it is not.

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Divided into four parts, The Missing 8 is centered on three characters: the corrupt radio anchor and commentator Sisoy Salas (John Arcilla), the prisoner-turned-hitman Roman Rubio (Dennis Trillo), and the mayor of the municipality and head of the political dynasty Pedring Eusebio (Dante Rivero). When Sisoy’s colleagues disappear, he tries to figure out where they have gone, all while the social unrest grows in La Paz as Pedring’s son (Wendell Ramos) takes a crack at securing the vice presidential seat.

Erik Matti and writer Michiko Yamamoto focus on delivering a slow-burn thriller packaged as a journalistic procedural: trading action for introspection, clear-cut ethics for moral ambiguity, and small journeys for larger, bleaker landscapes.

These artistic and narrative choices are reflective of the state of national and global politics — the rise in technocratic and populist dictators, the growing culture of impunity, the global disregard for human rights — and how these have changed our understanding of truth and our trust in institutions. The film makes no attempt to distinguish itself from reality and The Missing 8 spends much of its time laying down groundwork for its undoubtedly wider audience, borrowing details from the Maguindanao Massacre and the cases of the desaparesidos, knowledgeable that the success of the franchise hinges not on ingenuity, but on relevance and open defiance.

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The change in pace is expected given the shift in setting from Manila to La Paz. The strength of On the Job was in how the city informed and inhabited every character’s decision: the fast-paced action, the anonymity, and the escape of the hired hitmen are enabled by the grimy streets, the denseness of the population and the architecture, and the unending traffic unique to Metro Manila. The urban space is reinforced as a place of intense competition, where the struggle to maintain position and power demand desperate action; the threat of death, or worse, displacement, present at every turn.

The Missing 8 distances itself from this and proffers up a picturesque portrait of provincial life in La Paz (Spanish: “peace”), at least initially. In this new territory, everything is slow and image defines social life: people (including the mayor) smoke indoors, disappearances and killings are commonplace, and envelope journalism is an open secret.

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All of these minor infractions and major crimes are justified as necessary tradeoffs to keep the illusion of peace and integrity, especially for the privileged. By focusing on rural politics and the process of accruing power and unearthing truth, Matti expands the world of corruption established in the first film – showing the world that provinces are capable, if not more guilty, of hosting the same political machineries.

In this space where reputation is power, the battle is that of narrative.

While at times distracting, the film reinforces this message through its cinematography and editing – superimposing translucent stills of social media pages and newspaper headlines and cutting the scene into panels, mimicking newspapers or comic strips. The extravagant and often hilarious music is a mix of local and foreign delights, contrasting the gore in an attempt to make the brutality twistedly entertaining.

While its narrative culmination is a little outlandish given its adherence to realism, it must be said that every moment in the film belongs to John Arcilla. He creates a walking contradiction out of Sisoy: vile in one moment then ceaselessly charming the next, embodying the personality of the politician he has assimilated.

His voice is singular in a sea of the suppressed and it is sonorous as he panders to his audience — deliberately shutting down nay-sayers, unapologetically profiting out of his beliefs, even at the cost of his friendships. Much of the film rests on Arcilla’s shoulders and he does not disappoint, especially thanks to the support of powerful performances by his ideological counterparts Arnel (Christopher de Leon) and Weng (Lotlot De Leon).

When Arcilla is not in a scene, you wonder where he is and what his next action will be given the information you are witnessing. Throughout the film, Sisoy’s loyalties are challenged — constantly asked to choose between his two jobs — and the line between the truth and lies vanishes. The desire to go home and live a comfortable life with his family and the imperative to do what is right for greater good are the internal struggles of not only Sisoy but also Roman (compellingly portrayed by Dennis Trillo, if not for his unnecessary prosthetics). You learn to sympathize with them and are forced to understand their inaction, even if it makes you sick.

While On the Job focuses on whether individuals can enter a system without compromising their morality and tarnishing their identities, The Missing 8 examines not only how to dismantle a system from within, but questions how to escape it altogether. Is it even possible for people so deeply ingrained in their work to remember their responsibilities to justice and human welfare? The myth surrounding the disappearances proves that La Paz is not a place that dissenters can leave alive and if old dogs can no longer do their tricks, what happens then?

Arcilla’s historic Volpi Cup win at the 78th Venice International Film Festival is unsurprising to Filipinos who have long been witness to his work. It has been emphasized online that he joins the likes of legendary actors such as Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Toshiro Mifune. But many fail to acknowledge how much of a full-circle moment it is for the actor.

Arcilla’s first film credit was as a photojournalist in Lino Brocka’s Orapronobis — a film created under a dangerously similar political climate whose methods of oppression and silencing still ring true today.

This unlikely connection in Arcilla’s past and present achievement serves as evidence against the dominant discourse online about the uniqueness of the On The Job franchise. There have always been Filipino films like it and they have been made for decades: from even before Sister Stella L. and Bayan ko: Kapit Sa patalim in the 80s to way after Respeto and Aswang in the late 2010s. However, issues of access, distribution, and restoration prevent these films from being in the public eye.

So much has changed in the years since On The Job was made: the election of Rodrigo Duterte, the rise in extrajudicial killings, the bombing of Lumad schools, the ABS-CBN shutdown, the inefficient pandemic response, the machineries of disinformation, the threat of economic collapse.

As we near the end of voter registration and enter the 2022 election campaign season, the timeliness and urgency of the film is hard to ignore; its fury increasingly understandable as the days pass by. But more terrifying than ever is the truth that this form of cinematic rebellion (or at least meta-fiction) has always been there and it is unlikely to cease existing. 

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In a sense, The Missing 8 is a ghost story: about how history haunts us, how mistakes will swallow us like the earth, and how stories can serve not only as reflections of the past but also of a gruesome future. It is difficult to make sense of art as just that: art; powerless in front of the social structures and the existing hegemonies that threaten its creation. At times, filmmaking and film criticism feels like a futile effort at capturing a milieu that has already done its damage. For art, like journalism, can only go so far in enacting change. 

But if anything, this is proof that so long as people forget, cinema, much like any form of art or writing, will serve as a reminder: not only of the frustrations that shaped it, but of the lives from which it draws its power from. Film is only a shovel, a tool, and it is up to us how far, how deep, and how long we will dig. –

On the Job: The Missing 8 premiered at the Venice International Film Festival (Competition) on September 10, 2021 and is being released along with the first film as a six-part miniseries on HBO Go starting September 12, 2021.

Jason Tan Liwag

Jason Tan Liwag is an openly gay scientist, actor, and writer. As a film critic, he is an alumnus of the IFFR Young Critics Programme 2021, the FEFF Film Campus 2021, the Yamagata Film Criticism Workshop 2021, and the CINELAB Workshop 2020 and has served as a jury member for film festivals locally and internationally.